U.S. women earn another shot at gold
SOCHI, Russia -- As she stood in the postgame interview area, tiny beads of sweat still dripping down her rosy cheeks, United States forward Monique Lamoureux struggled to grasp the statistical extent to which her team had dominated Sweden in an Olympic semifinal here Monday.
Sure, she had taken 15 shifts in the game, logged 12:45 of ice time and scored one of her team's goals in a 6-1 victory. But the moment hadn't really sunk in yet until she stood in the mixed zone and asked a reporter about the disparity in shots between the Americans and Swedes. When she was told the margin was 70-9, Lamoureux's eyes nearly came out of her head.
"Whoa," she said. "That's a lot."
How much did this one get out of hand? Sweden goaltender Valentina Wallner made 42 saves and lost. She was pulled in the second period after surrendering a fifth American goal. Before then, she faced an average of one shot every 41 seconds.
"She had a busy day at work," said Sweden assistant coach Leif Boork.
Statistically, the two Swedish goaltenders, Wallner (89 percent) and Kim Martin Hasson (95 percent) had a better day than American Jessie Vetter, who stopped eight of the nine shots she faced. Yet the Swedes had nothing to show for it after the game besides dejected expressions.
None of this was much of a surprise. The last two times these teams met, in the 2013 Four Nations Cup, the U.S. won by a combined score of 18-1. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, the U.S. beat Sweden 9-1. After Monday's loss, Boork confessed that the Americans were "too big a challenge" for his team. He then joked, "We were three goals better than Vancouver."
The truth is, this was less of a hockey game and more of a pothole to avoid, a nagging fly to shoo away. And now that the pesky bug is gone, the Americans can focus on what they've wanted from the very beginning: a rematch against bitter rival Canada with the gold medal at stake.
"I don't think they can beat us two times in a row," U.S. forward Kelli Stack said. "Especially with what's on the line."
It was five days earlier, in the same Shayba Arena, where the Canadians beat a sloppy U.S. team 3-2. Less than 48 hours later, U.S. coach Katey Stone lit into her team during a film session, criticizing everything from its lack of a strong forecheck to an unwillingness to fight for 50/50 pucks. She confessed that her team somehow wasn't ready for the biggest game of the year. And although the effort, tempo and execution had picked up in practice, Stone said she wouldn't know whether her mini-tirade had worked until Monday's game against the Swedes.
It would seem the answer is yes. But how much can you take from a game where you dominate puck possession from beginning to end? When you have nearly eight times more shots than your opponent?
"You don't get that many shots if you're not on your toes going forward," Stone said. "That's an indicator of being hungry for the puck, keeping possession and taking the shots that are there. I like how our team responded. We know we're not finished yet and we can play better, and they know that."
Stone's players seemed to agree. They sold the concept that this was a new team, that the loss to the Canadians was the best thing that could have happened to them.
"We try to focus on ourselves and play our game," Lamoureux said. "Tonight, sure, we had more space than we're used to playing with, but that doesn't always mean you're going to do the right thing with it."
Six different players scored for the United States (Alex Carpenter, Kacey Bellamy, Amanda Kessel, Lamoureux, Megan Bozek and Brianna Decker), while 10 of 18 Americans tallied a point and 15 of 18 had a shot on goal.
The Americans controlled the game from beginning to end. They were dangerous with the puck. They fought in the corners. They did the little things it takes to win while peppering the Swedish goal with shot after shot. This was quantity over quality. It was barely competitive. Just like the U.S. game against Switzerland a week earlier, antsy Russian fans roared on the rare occasion the Swedes skated into the American zone. They chanted "Shayba! Shayba!" -- which translates to "shoot the puck" -- when the Swedes maintained possession for more than a few seconds and didn't shoot.
"We said after Wednesday's loss that we were going to feel bad for the other team we faced tonight, and we were a different team tonight," U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said. "We were flying."
But let's not get too carried away. Sure, it's better than the alternative. It's better than what happened in Torino eight years ago when the Swedes shockingly upset the Americans in the semifinals. But we really won't know whether Stone has truly fixed whatever ailed the U.S. until it steps onto the ice for Thursday's gold-medal game against Canada.
When asked whether she thought things would be different on Thursday, Duggan didn't mince words.
"In my heart, yes I do," she said. "It wouldn't be right to say I don't believe that."