Preview Canadian women's hockey team can't afford to take Finland lightly

Finns scored a victory against Canada at last world championships

Canadian women's hockey team can't afford to take Finland lightly
In this April 6, 2017, file photo, Canada forward Rebecca Johnston (6) hits Finland defender Anna Kilponen (5) during an IIHF women's world hockey championship semifinal game, in Plymouth, Mich. The two teams will meet again on Tuesday in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File) © The Associated Press

By Mike Brophy, CBC Sports

One of the keys when you're overwhelming favourites to make it to the gold-medal game is not take your eye off the ball in the preliminary round.

Not that a defeat would be a crushing blow, but there's no question it could undermine a team's confidence.

Canada got such a wake-up call on April 1, 2017, at the world championships when, in the preliminary round, it lost 4-3 to Finland. Canada started fresh-faced goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer, opting to not dress veteran Shannon Szabados, and paid the price.

True enough, Canada rebounded to beat Finland 4-0 in the semifinals en route to winning a silver medal, but the point is, if Finland is taken lightly, there may be consequences.

Shrinking gap

Canadian coach Laura Schuler said her team is very aware how other countries are closing the gap between themselves and the top two teams, Canada and the United States.

"I think it's a testament to the parity within our sport and how close it's getting," said Team Canada coach Laura Schuler, commenting on how much better the second-tier teams are getting in international women's hockey. "You're seeing that at the Under-18 level and how close it is. It is a positive thing and within the last three years other countries have played us close."

Canada defeated the Olympic Athletes from Russia 5-0 in its opening game of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games and will face Finland in Game 2 Tuesday. The Finns, meanwhile, lost their opening game 3-1 to the United States, but put forth a solid effort.

Finland actually built a 1-0 lead against the Americans, but were unable to build on it. The Finns felt their lack of discipline ultimately led to their demise. They were penalized four times and allowed one American power-play goal.

"We took too many penalties, for sure," said Finland's goal-scorer Venla Hovi. "We gave them momentum. We were kind of giving them the puck and just following them around."

Finland coach: 'We know we can beat them'

The Finns, who are third in the world in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) team rankings behind No. 1 United States and No. 2 Canada, are regarded by many to be the leading contender to win the bronze medal in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Finland captured bronze medals at the 1998 and 2010 Olympic Games.

Finland coach Pasi Mustonen was encouraged by his team's performance against the United States.

"This is a new generation of Finnish players," Mustonen boasted. "It's equal to the men's team. We never start a game without thinking about aiming at winning the game. Say five or 10 years ago, we didn't have the players who really believed to be able to beat the North American [teams].

"Now we know we can beat them. We've beaten both teams."

Canada dominated the Olympic Athletes from Russia in its Olympic opener. Goaltender Ann-Renee Desbiens was a surprise starter, making her Olympic debut, and made 18 saves to record the shutout.

"It was a great start for us," said veteran Canadian forward Meghan Agosta. "We didn't get frustrated at all and in the second period we just ended up burying our chances. It was just setting the tone in general as a team."

Click on the video below to watch Ann-Renee Desbiens discuss her opening start: 


Johnston an offensive force

If it was a shock that Desbiens got the start ahead of veterans Shannon Szabados and Genevieve Lacasse, it was certainly no surprise that left winger Rebecca Johnston scored two goals for Canada. Melodie Daoust also scored twice for Canada with Haley Irwin adding a single. Team captain Marie-Philip Poulin had three assists.

Watch Canada's Rebecca Johnston go top shelf on the Russian goalie:

Johnston, 28, is playing in her third Olympic Games and had three goals and 11 points in her first 10 games. The 5-foot-9, 148-pound speedster from Sudbury, Ont., is increasingly one of Canada's most dangerous players.

Last summer, Johnston told CBC Sports she believed she had room in her game for improvement and it is clear she has taken her game to the next level. She was arguably Canada's most dominant forward at the Four Nations Cup in Florida this past November.

Canada finished second to the United States in that event, but has not lost to the Americans since, beating their opponents in five straight games.

Johnston assured Canada will not take the Finns lightly in Game 2.

"Oh yeah, I mean we definitely have to come out and play our 'A' games to be able to win every game at the Olympics," Johnston said. "Finland's a great team. We lost to them at the worlds last year so we can't take them lightly."