Collision Course

Following a weekend of blowouts, the U.S. and Canada are each a win away from the women’s hockey gold medal game

The predicted showdown between former Harvard roommates Angela Ruggiero ’02-’04 and Jennifer Botterill ’02-’03 and their respective U.S. and Canadian Olympic women’s hockey teams is just one day away from materializing.

The U.S. and Canadian teams completed the formality of sweeping their respective Olympic round-robin pools Saturday. The last formality—winning their semifinal games—is set for today. Canada will take on Finland at 1 p.m. and the U.S. will meet Sweden at 6:30 p.m.

If Saturday’s results are any indication, the U.S. and Canada have too much talent—from Harvard, in particular—for the Scandinavian countries to stay close.

Against Sweden, Botterill turned what had been a close game in the first period into an 11-0 Canada blowout. She scored two of the first three Canadian goals to spark the romp.

And while all the hype surrounding the United States’ 5-0 victory over Finland centered on the hat trick of 18-year-old Natalie Darwitz, it was primary assists from the Harvard defensemen—Ruggiero and A.J. Mleczko ’97-’99—that put Darwitz in position to score the Americans’ first two goals.

The two teams have similar outlooks going into this afternoon’s games. They both know better than to look past their opponents, but they also know that today is their last chance to iron out their kinks in time for the gold medal game.

Canada 11, Sweden 0

Had it not been for Botterill, Saturday night’s Canada-Sweden game might have been vastly different. Her first goal proved to be all Canada would need as it went into the first intermission leading 1-0. But it was Botterill’s second goal—Canada’s third—which crushed Sweden’s spirits.

That goal came on the kind of play that only Botterill can make with consistency. As Canadian defenseman Geraldine Heaney took a high slap shot from the point, Botterill rose her stick to eye-level and redirected the puck accurately down through the legs of Swedish goaltender Annica Ahlen.

Botterill had scored a goal just like that one in Canada’s 7-0 win over Russia, but this one was from even further outside the crease.

Botterill didn’t think her goals of this variety had been anything spectacular, but rather the result of her coordination building as the game progresses.

“I just did what I could,” Botterill said.

Canada’s first goal was a familiar combination—Tammy Shewchuk ’00-’01 to Botterill.

Shewchuk set up Botterill one-on-one with the Swedish left defender, who stood like a post as Botterill skated around her for the breakaway. Moving in on Ahlen, Botterill came across the slot and buried the puck inside the left post for the score.

Canada went on to score four more goals in the second and six more in the third—including two in the final 30 seconds—and outshot Sweden 70-22. Canadian goaltender Kim St. Pierre, the McGill standout, earned the shutout despite tough point-blank challenges from Swedish forward Maria Rooth, last year’s NCAA Frozen Four MVP from Minnesota-Duluth.

Botterill assisted on the tenth Canadian goal, which came in the game’s final minute. Holding the puck at the right half-boards, she found teammate Dana Antal cross-ice on the left doorstop for the easy finish. After the score, Shewchuk patted Antal’s shoulder, turned back to Botterill and gave her a sharp nod of approval.

The 10 goals in two periods against Sweden gave Canada some offensive confidence that had been lagging following seven-goal efforts against Kazakhstan and Russia that were considered below the team’s potential.

“We’re jelling at the right time,” Shewchuk said. “We’re getting in front of the net, getting our sticks down to get those all-important rebounds. We’re coming along very nicely. We’re exactly where we want to be.”

Botterill’s three points led all Canadians in scoring. She stands tied for fifth in Olympic competition in that category. But Botterill was even more pleased that the scoring was so evenly spread out.

“We wanted to focus on finishing every play that we made,” Botterill said. “It was great because so many players contributed.”

And Botterill believes her long-stated goal of peaking just in time for the Olympics will be met. She told the Winnepeg Sun that she felt that Canada outplayed the U.S. in all but 10 minutes of the United States’ most recent pre-Olympic exhibition victory.

“I feel we’ve been catching up to the U.S. every game and believe if we play 60 minutes of great hockey we can win,” she said.

United States 5, Finland 0

The toughest opponent for the U.S. Olympic team during its first three games was not a player on the ice, but a flu bug that hit the team. The illness knocked U.S. defenseman Sue Merz out of Saturday’s game, and struck Ruggiero for a day, but she was back in time to provide the U.S. with two critical setups against Finland.

With the U.S. ahead 1-0 and shorthanded with Ruggiero and Tricia Dunn in the box, the Finns had came close to tying the game with some hard outside slapshots on U.S. goaltender Sarah DeCosta.

But DeCosta held strong and managed to work the puck to Ruggiero as she came out of the box. Despite a Finnish defender diving into the play and taking out Ruggiero’s feet, Ruggiero still managed to get the puck to Darwitz for a breakaway and a finish.

Darwitz had also scored the first U.S. goal. It came from Mleczko, who, while moving down the ice, brought the puck laterally to beat a defender and then dished to Darwitz, wide open at the crease. Darwitz, not one to waste chances, patiently brought the puck to her right and put in the open net after Finnish goaltender Tuula Puputti committed.

Finland was far and away the toughest opponent defensively the Crimson had faced. The Finns limited the U.S. to just one goal in each of the second and third periods—the only third-period goal coming when Ruggiero set up Princeton’s Andrea Kilbourne in the crease for a lucky backhand.

“The tempo today was extremely fast,” Ruggiero said. “This is the best competition we faced so far.”

But Finland didn’t have the offensive talent to give the Americans any serious test. Even on two five-on-threes—one in the first, one in the third—Finland struggled to attack to net. In the two-man advantage in the third, the Finns didn’t even muster a shot.

The real test for the U.S. will come in the medal round.

“We have to play two more games to prove our point,” Mleczko said. “Our ultimate goal is to be in the gold medal game Thursday and then to win it.”

—Material from the Associated Press was used in the reporting of this article.