Friday, November 8, 2013

Finland --USA

The United States is supposed to win this game to set up a final with Canada on Saturday night. There had been a fight in a match a few weeks back between the two teams, so the anticipated championship game is something to look forward to.

It is not difficult for me to find a place to sit. There are more people in the Herb Brooks arena for this second game of the doubleheader than there had been for the Sweden-Canada preliminary, but still an entire side of the rink is empty and reserved for people who are writing about the game or taking photographs.  I can be as close to the ice as I want to be, and the pregame activity is far more revealing than any television broadcast can be as it relates to how fast these women can skate and how hard the shots that come screaming at the goaltenders.  I walk past the Finland net during warmups and flinch when a puck smashes against the protective glass.  This game is not for the weak.

The starting six for each team is announced and I hear that the Northeastern star, Kendall Coyne, is skating on the first line.  She has taken a leave from school to compete for the team. Currently there are thirty women on our team. Five will be cut before the games in Russia this February. I cannot imagine what it would be like for those five athletes who will have worked for months to make the team.

The teams line up for the national anthems for Finland and the United States and then the puck drops. Only thirty seconds in and you can feel the excitement on the ice. Watching some events live is nothing at all like watching them on the tube. College hockey and basketball are at least two of these sports.  The experience of being there watching these athletes skating ferociously, fighting for the puck, and sending the scorching shots at the goaltenders is not the same as watching the event on television.  These players are very talented.

The seat I have selected is only a few rows behind the penalty box. Early on, a Fin is sent off the ice for two minutes and takes a seat below. But before the Americans can take an advantage, a woman from Finland takes a zetz from an American who joins the Fin in the penalty box. I can see how rough this game can be. Women are collided into each other and are coming at each other at great speed. At one point a woman from Finland takes a puck to the head.  She is helped off the ice. After the game she is interviewed with an icepack around her noggin.

Early in the game particularly, Kendall Coyne is impressive. She skates quickly and seems to be able to get to the puck before the others. At one point, she makes an excellent move, gets free right in front of the Fin goaltender, and slams a shot that is stopped, apparently effortlessly.  While I did not know it then of course, this stop foreshadowed what would take place throughout the game. Blasts from the US, somehow absorbed by a remarkable goaltender.

I realize as I watch this first period that as long as this game stays close the pressure will be on the Yanks and it will ratchet up as the minutes are exhausted.  The US is heavily favored to win and advance to the championship game. If we lose, then we play in the consolation game on Saturday rendering this a disappointing tournament which will not auger well for the Olympic games in Russia.

(Interesting to observe that the coaches for the Fins are all male, and two of the three coaches behind the US bench are women).

Finland gets a power play with 7:53 to go in the first period. The penalty is killed, but not without a terrific save by the US goalie. With 521 the US has a power play, but can do nothing with it.

Down to 225 in first period with no score. With 46 seconds left in the period we have a clear shot but the goalie makes a great save. She has made so many great saves this period that I glance down on my score sheet to check out her name. She is Noora Raty and something special.  The first period ends scoreless even though the US has outshot the Fins 13-6. There will be some nervous hockey players and coaches in the US locker room.

In the tunnel before the start of the second period one can hear the chant of USA from the players as they raced onto the ice.  The US, very predictably, has more fans in the arena than the Fins and there are some kids close to the ice who are urging the Americans on.

The goalie from Finland is now making me think she might get a shot in the NHL.  In the first minute the Americans come out smoking and pepper her with shot after shot, which she deflects as if it is the easiest thing in the world-as if she is taking time out from reading a magazine and when she notices a puck coming at her, she easily gets in the way or snares it before she goes back to reading her article.  We are dominating so much that I wonder if our goalie may have trouble retaining concentration and this seems to be the case when the Fins shock the arena and score.  Then nine seconds later they really silence the American supporters when they score again and lead 2-0.  There's not a whole lot of energy on the US bench and whatever there is, is doused further when Noora Raty makes two terrific saves in a subsequent rush.

Maybe to give his under siege goaltender a breather, Team Finland calls a time out. Since the arena is more than half empty I can hear the shouting, of course in a tongue foreign to me.  I think about the language issue again in a matter of moments when the Fins contest a call that puts the US in a power play, but cant seem to get the message across to the referees.

Two of our shots hit the post, but I wonder if that is because that's the only part of the goal we can get access to given Noora Raty's remarkable play.  At one point she goes down in a heep after being banged in a scrum near her net.  She shakes it off, gets up, and resumes stopping shot after shot.  We get another power play, and then a two player advantage.  Finally, after skating 5 on 3 and pummeling the goalie, and after one of the three Fin players loses her stick, one of the screaming slapshots from the US makes it past Raty.  The period ends 2-1.

During the break I go into the media room and ask some others to tell me about this goaltender. I discover that she played for the University of Minnesota in the US and was remarkable for the Gophers. Still, I wonder if she can possibly withstand the constant pressure put on by the Americans. She had already stopped, after just two periods, over forty shots.

The third period starts and we still can't get anything past her. Then with 9 minutes to go in the game, the Fins score again to make it 3-1. I sense the air going out from the US bench as scoring twice against Raty seems highly unlikely. Even if we were to tie, we would have to either win in overtime or win in a shoot out to advance to the championship game.

I look up with three minutes to go and see that we have already pulled our goalie.  All the action has been at the Fin net anyway, so why not. We pummel Raty without success. The Fins commit a penalty so for the last minute and thirteen seconds we have a 6-4 advantage and yet the buzzer sounds with the score 3-1. Noora Raty has made 58 saves.

I have access to the post game media space and walk past the locker rooms. The Fins are cheering wildly. This is a big upset in the Four Nations tournament.   A couple of members from the Fin team come out one by one and happily respond to questions. The somber US coach meets with the media and very professionally comments about the game. She says that it is a disappointment but when a goaltender "stands on her head" to stop shot after shot, you need to take your cap off to the player.

Sad night for American fans. Later I sit in a restaurant where some parents of the USA team have gathered.  Having travelled in some cases hundreds of miles to come to the games, the loss clearly is a disappointment.  Still I am impressed by their loyalty to the players and children.  And the players deserve this loyalty.  They are giving up a year of their life to play in the Olympics.

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