Wednesday, February 5, 2014
A rare early test for Team USA
By Bonnie Ford
When Team USA looks inside Finland's goal they will see the Noora Raty looking back at them.
The U.S. team outscored its three Olympic round-robin opponents 31-1. Canada steamrolled by a 41-2 margin. The routs raised some questions about the women’s inclusion in the Winter Games as critics wondered why the global level hadn't progressed more since the inaugural competition in 1998.
Whether there’s more overall depth in the game in 2014 will soon be revealed. But the preliminary rounds should be more competitive and entertaining because of a format change that sorted the top four teams into one group and the next four into another. The third- and fourth-place teams in Group A will move on to play the first- and second-place teams in Group B in the quarterfinals, and those winners advance to the semifinals against the top two teams.
That fine print means the U.S. team will have to accelerate into the tournament rather than warm up its engine. First up Saturday is Finland, whose team shockingly upended the Americans at home in the Four Nations Cup in November. Canada awaits next Wednesday in what is almost certainly Act I of a two-part championship drama.
"I don’t see a downside, personally," head coach Katey Stone said of the reshuffled deck. "It’s a world-class event, and we want to be challenged as much as we can."
The U.S. and Canada have faced off in group play in the last two world championships, which "only enhanced the overall product," Stone said.
Perhaps Finland’s greatest asset on the ice is 24-year-old goaltender Noora Raty, whose stellar career at the University of Minnesota ended with a perfect 41-0-0 season and a national championship. Raty made 58 saves in Finland’s 3-1 win in the premier Four Nations event.
U.S. goaltender Jessie Vetter said she respects Raty’s ability to keep her team in any game and added that she welcomes the chance to hit the ice running, so to speak, in the first game.
The ruling came in plenty of time for artist Ron Slater to redo the mask with alternate patriotic motifs Vetter liked -- an eagle and the Statue of Liberty, among others -- that stayed within guidelines for equipment.
"It didn’t affect me," Vetter said of the makeover. "He did a great job."