No Four Nations hangover for Team USA
SOCHI, Russia -- Finland's Olympic hockey players knew some peril accompanied the pride they felt when they upset the United States in their version of a mini-miracle in Lake Placid in the Four Nations Cup this past November.
The Finns were aware they'd be facing a fully awakened and slightly wounded U.S. women's team that could be even more aggressive than usual. Knowing that heading into Saturday's Olympic opener, however, didn't mean the Finns could prevent it.
Forward Hilary Knight got the Americans off to the start they wanted, striking on a breakaway 53 seconds into the game, thus getting an early upper hand on superlative goaltender Noora Raty, in a 3-1 win.
"It's a nice piece of history to have for myself," said Knight, 24, a 2010 Olympian and University of Wisconsin alum whose goal was the earliest in an Olympic women's opener.
"It sets the tone and takes a lot of the edge off the anxiety of the first game," U.S. coach Katey Stone told reporters. "Any time you can score quickly, regardless of the team you're playing, the goalie or the environment, it's great."
Moments later, her Finnish counterpart, Mika Pieniniemi, found himself answering a familiar question: Can anyone crash the quadrennial gold medal party that's been the near-exclusive domain of the U.S. and Canada?
Pieniniemi said his team, one of Europe's premier outfits, won't concede anything.
Stone leaned into her microphone and looked at the news conference moderator.
"May I comment on that, too?" she asked.
"I can tell you that there are 21 players and four coaches in the locker room who don't believe it's a two-team tournament," she said. "We believe very strongly this is a world event and anyone can win."
The Finnish coach dipped his head slightly. "Thanks," he said.
"You're welcome," Stone replied.
The game was largely as civil as that exchange, and it was tighter than any Olympic encounter between the two teams since a 4-2 U.S. win in 1998. It also kicked off a tournament with a modified format that pits the world's top four teams against each other in group play. The U.S. will face Switzerland on Monday and archrival Canada two days later. Three-time defending champion Canada breezed past Switzerland 5-0 in a lopsided game that looked more like Olympics past, and it could have been even worse -- the Swiss goaltender made 64 saves.
Forward Kelli Stack put the U.S. team up 2-0 in the second period when she connected with a puck that glanced off her upper body and swatted it past Raty.
"I've actually done that before against her in college, catch the puck in my jersey and then just hit it out of the air," said Stack, who played for Boston College. "Noora's a great goalie, so you kind of have to try to find any way you can to score on her. The first shot's probably not going to go in, but the second or third's going to.
"They're definitely not too far off," Stack said of the Finns, who, along with the Swedes, have long been the cream of European competition. "They're getting faster and stronger."
Raty, who sported a horizontal welt on her neck from an errant stick, said she thought Finland is "a little bit closer" to containing the United States at the Olympic level, although she admitted she doesn't think her team could beat either of the world's top two twice in one tournament.
"We're more physically fit, and we can skate with these guys for 60 minutes," said Raty, whose stinginess in net helped propel the University of Minnesota to an undefeated 41-win season in 2012-13. She made 58 saves to lead Finland's 3-1 Four Nations win over the U.S. two months ago.
First-time Olympian Alex Carpenter, whose father Bobby played in the NHL for 18 years, added a power-play goal in the second period. With less than five minutes remaining in the game and the Americans short-handed, Finland's Susanna Tapani broke through and spoiled the shutout.
Retired U.S. defenseman Caitlin Cahow, who watched from the stands with other dignitaries in the official government delegation to the Winter Games, said Knight's lightning strike was crucial for her and the team.
"She's an impact player, and she needs to be productive in this tournament," Cahow said. "But it's also good to see scoring from three different players.
"I really liked the tempo of this game. It's difficult to keep that up when you're playing a team that isn't as fast as you are, but they did."