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Women's Olympic Preview: Canada Hoping for Role Reversal

Canada enters the 2022 Winter games in unfamiliar territory, coming off gold at the worlds. But the mission remains the same, and the squad has all the pieces in place to reclaim Olympic glory.
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Not at any point in the history of women’s hockey at the Olympics has Canada entered the tournament as an underdog. However, the Canadians have arrived at each Olympics since 2006 playing second fiddle to a United States outfit that had won gold at the World Championship in the year leading up to the best-on-best event.

That is not so this time around.

Despite sitting second in the IIHF rankings to the Americans, a victory at the 2021 World Championship in Calgary has Canada, for the first time since the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, arriving at the tournament as the reigning gold medallists at the worlds. On paper, that will provide Canada little advantage. But in effect, the World Championship triumph will allow an already confident club to stand a bit taller when its members step under the bright lights in Beijing. There is a swagger and belief that the balance of power is shifting back Canada’s way after the Canadians fell to Team USA in a shootout in the 2018 Olympic gold-medal game in Pyeongchang.

One pitfall Canada must avoid, however, is overlooking the competition in a tricky Group A. Though Team USA remains unquestionably the toughest test, the 2019 World Championship semifinal defeat at the hands of

Finland is a stark reminder that the skill gap is shrinking and a spot in the gold-medal game is not guaranteed.

OFFENSE

Perhaps no single performance better encapsulates how lethal the Canadian attack can be than that of Melodie Daoust at the 2021 worlds. Leading up to the event, Daoust had been a proven big-tournament player and paced Canada in scoring at the 2018 Games, but her four goals and 12 points in 17 combined World Championship and Olympic outings saw her as more of a featured player than an outright scoring star. Then came the breakout. In seven games at the 2021 tournament in Calgary, Daoust was dominant, taking home MVP honors for the gold medallists with a six-goal, 12-point outpouring. The performance proved two things. First, Daoust is a world-class scorer. Second, shutting down Canada’s big names leaves the door wide open for others to pick a defense apart.

Beyond the pure scoring talent Canada possesses – notably Marie-Philip Poulin, who remains the best player in the sport and a game-changing talent the likes of which no other squad has at its disposal – the national team’s greatest asset is its depth and ability to overwhelm the opposition. At the 2021 worlds, teams attempting to shut Canada down often suffered death by a thousand cuts. Canada’s 345 shots on goal, an average of 49.3 per game, were 51 more than second-place USA, and 14 Canadian players scored at least one goal, nine at least two and six at least three.

Most interesting, though, will be the contributions from the next generation. When the likes of Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Caroline Ouellette and Meghan Agosta were winding down their careers, players such as Poulin, Rebecca Johnston and Brianne Jenner stepped in to fill those shoes. Now, it’s time for the torch to begin changing hands once again, and Sarah Fillier appears primed to take center stage as a future face of the program.

DEFENSE

Though the scoresheet-stuffing forwards often get the plaudits when Canada routs the competition in top-flight tournaments, few players have as consistent an impact as blueliner Erin Ambrose. Recognized as one of the best defenders in the world, Ambrose is fresh off of an all-star team selection at the 2021 worlds and will enter the Olympics as inarguably the most important cog on the back end for Canada.

She won’t have to shoulder the entire load, though, as veterans Renata Fast and Jocelyne Larocque will be tasked with leading the way and settling the nerves of a younger-leaning defense corps lacking Olympic experience. None of Ella Shelton, Claire Thompson or Micah Zandee-Hart have played an Olympic game to date.

The good news? The assembled group has proven in the buildup to the Olympics, experience or not, that it has a remarkable ability to strangle opposition attacks before they start. Defensively, Canada was the stingiest group at the 2021 worlds, allowing only seven goals against throughout the competition and an average of 13 shots against per game, the fewest of any team in the tournament.

There is, however, one area of great concern, as Canada’s penalty killing has been suspect throughout the worlds and during the Rivalry Series contests against Team USA. Of the seven goals against in Calgary, three came on the PK, and Canada finished seventh out of 10 teams with an 88-percent efficiency shorthanded. Canada was worse yet across the six Rivalry Series games the teams skated before COVID shut down the series, successfully killing just 80 percent of penalties. In a tournament where games can so often be won and lost based entirely on special teams, especially against the top squads, failing to sort out the penalty kill has potential to prove incredibly costly.

GOALTENDING

For the first time in more than a decade, the Canadian crease has been vacated by Shannon Szabados, arguably the greatest goaltender the women’s game has ever seen. But where some may see cause for concern, Ann-Renee Desbiens and Emerance Maschmeyer – the two who will tussle for the No. 1 job – only see opportunity.

The duo split time during Canada’s run to gold at the 2021 worlds and again shared the blue paint during Rivalry Series action. Though neither possesses the international pedigree Szabados does (the duo combines for 18 World Championship and Olympic outings to Szabados’ 26), both have big-time collegiate credentials. Take Desbiens, a one-time Patty Kazmaier Award winner in her time at Wisconsin. To this day, Desbiens holds the top two spots in NCAA history for single-season save percentage, goals-against average and shutouts, and she remains the all-time leader in all three categories. For her part, Maschmeyer ranks 10th all-time in SP and not once posted a GAA above 1.87 during her four seasons at Harvard.

The greatest concern for the duo could be staying mentally sharp. Goaltenders often thrive when facing consistent action, and there will be prolonged periods throughout the tournament when there will be little for Desbiens and Maschmeyer to do in the cage. If the Canadian keepers can stay locked in, though, this is a tandem with gold-medal potential. 

This preview appeared in The Hockey News' Olympic Preview issue.

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