For the first time in the Olympic tournament, Canada’s women’s hockey team found itself outshot and, at times, outplayed as it battled the United States in the preliminary round finale.
Yet the Canadians still pulled off the win, earning a 4-2 victory to secure the top spot in Group A.
Goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens turned away 51 shots and was instrumental in keeping Canada in the game after the U.S. got off to a dominant start, at one point hemming the Canadians in their own zone for over a minute and a half.
“It actually didn’t feel too bad,” said Desbiens of the workload. “I guess in the first period, yes it did. We had a lot of defensive zone time, but in the second and third we were able to get it out more often. My [defence], my forwards, did a good job of pushing the rebounds to the corner and those kinds of things allowed me to breathe.”
The U.S. onslaught proved the first true test for Canada’s defence, which had been tasked with very little defending in prior matches.
“The Americans did forecheck very well in the first period,” said Danièle Sauvageau, who coached Canada to Olympic gold in 2002. “They really went inside-out and forced Team Canada on the wall. Then the Canadians tried to go up the wall and make short passes toward the face-off dot, which didn’t work.
“They took almost one period to readjust to that, but they did in the second period and it was much better.”
Desbiens’ calm demeanour in net was key to withstanding the offensive pressure, both for her puck stopping efforts and her influence on the rest of the group.
WATCH | Canada fends off U.S. in preliminary action:
“She was very good with their young defence players,” Sauvageau said, pointing to a moment early in the game when rookie Claire Thompson bobbled the puck near the crease. “She started talking to Thompson right after that, and she kept smiling. This is where it does calm her team.”
Canada was being outshot 13-2 early when a penalty to U.S. defender Caroline Harvey offered some much-needed breathing room. It took just 36 seconds for the Canadians to capitalize on a passing sequence between Marie-Philip Poulin, Sarah Fillier, and Brianne Jenner, who scored from the top of the crease.
The 19-year-old Harvey spent the rest of the game watching from the bench.
Goal scoring blitz in 2nd period
Though Team USA continued to put up a high volume of shots, ultimately outnumbering Canada 53-27, many of those opportunities were relatively low-danger attempts from the perimeter.
The rest of the scoring occurred within a nine-minute span in the second period. After the Americans took the lead with a pair of quick goals, Jenner replied 26 seconds later to equalize. Jamie Lee Rattray restored Canada’s advantage shortly afterwards, and Poulin made no mistake on a penalty shot, celebrating as she brought the score to 4-2.
“For her, pressure does not exist,” Sauvageau said. “It was nice for her to react the way that she reacted.”
WATCH | Poulin converts on penalty shot:
Canada played with a shortened bench, rolling three lines for large parts of the match. It relied heavily on its top defensive pairing, with Renata Fast logging nearly half an hour of ice time and Jocelyne Larocque amassing more than 26 minutes.
Sauvageau figures those personnel choices reveal the importance Canada’s coaching staff placed on earning the win, which can provide a mental benefit should these teams meet again in the medal round.
“We are happy that we continue to gain confidence,” head coach Troy Ryan said. “We also like the fact that we didn’t play our best but still found a way to win.”
Moving forward, the undefeated Canadians still have plenty of room to improve.
They’ll want to return to the strong starts and crisp puck movement that characterized their previous games, and cut down on turnovers.
“We’d obviously like to manage the puck a little bit better to not be putting [Desbiens] in those situations,” Ryan said.
“If we do a better job managing the puck, we’d knock off 15 to 20 of those shots.”
Canada’s special teams remained impressive; its power play leads all teams with a 46.15 per cent efficiency rate, while the penalty kill, which went 5-for-6, is tops among Group A squads.
Sauvageau expects that the Canadians’ preliminary round performance, during which all but one active player registered at least a point, will set them up well for success in the knockout stage.
“It shows the depth of Team Canada,” she said. “It shows that they can play under pressure, and it shows that the best players stood up when it counts. Fast, Larocque, Jenner, and Poulin took charge today, and it shows the great leadership that those four players have.”
WATCH | Full game, Canada vs. United States: