Canadians casually crush Finns, Noora Raty ahead of showdown with U.S.

Jillian Saulnier (11), of Canada, scores a goal against goalie Noora Raty (41), of Finland, during the second period of the preliminary round of the women's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Maybe it’s because they’re the four-time and reigning Olympic champions, but the women of Team Canada made it seem like it was no big deal whatsoever, just business as usual.

Minutes after Canada scored four times on one of the best goalies on the planet, they explained how they’d gotten the best of Finland’s best, in Noora Raty.

“She’s a really good goalie — we have to give her that,” said Melodie Daoust, who assisted on the first goal in this 4-1 win with a gorgeous saucer pass, and later scored one of her own. “But I think as a team we put a lot of pucks on net, a lot of traffic.”

Still, this is Raty who was subject to a near-thrashing that brings Canada to 2-0, a dominant win over the Olympic Athletes of Russia already in the books.

Nobody on Canada will say it here, but do you want to know how good Raty is? Ask her teammate with the CWHL’s Kunlun Red Star, Melanie Jue. “She’s the best goalie in the world,” Jue said. And Jue hails from Vancouver, so that’s not exactly politically correct. “When she’s on? Man…” Jiu added. “She can be out there by herself.”

Raty can. And she basically was out there by herself for stretches in the first and second periods on Tuesday at Kwandong Hockey Centre, her teammates giving her little to no help. But she also didn’t have a chance to be “on”. Canada’s forwards didn’t let her. It was further proof of how powerful this team is offensively, now with nine goals in two games compared to just one against.

On Tuesday, you had to figure it would be a low-scoring affair, with two of the world’s best goalies between the pipes — Shannon Szabados, the two-time Olympic gold medallist, got the start for Canada. But the reigning champs needed just 35 seconds to get on the board.

That’s when Daoust, the 26-year-old winger who was part of Canada’s last win on this stage, forced a turnover in the Finnish end. She was patient as all get-out before she sauced it to Meghan Agosta for the tap-in.

“I just saw that the D was coming for me, so I tried to hang a little bit more to drag that goalie out of her crease, and Agosta was just coming off the post with her stick down,” Daoust said. “She did that perfectly.”

Agosta did, and the goal was her 16th at the Olympic Games, leaving her just three shy of the record for the most in the women’s tournament, a standard set by Hayley Wickenheiser.

A three-time gold medallist, Agosta said the key was getting off to a quick start against Finland. “I think the biggest thing with [Raty] being an experienced player and playing against her a lot in the past is just getting to her early,” Agosta said. “She’s a great goalie. If you take away her eyes it’s a way to put the puck in the net, moving her laterally. She played a really good game.

“The biggest thing for us was getting at her early and burying those chances that we had. We did a really good job with that.”

Canada did. The filthiest goal of the game was scored by who else, but Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin, author of the game-winners in each of the last two Olympic gold-medal games. She made it 2-0 after Finnish captain Jenni Hiirikoski gave away the puck in the slot area in front of Raty, where it landed on the worst possible stick, at least from a Finnish perspective.

Poulin’s laser-beam backhand was so fast that it exited the net about as quickly as it entered, and the ref emphatically waved it off, despite the fact the goal horn went and Poulin shot up her arms. Play resumed for a minute or so before a whistle, and upon review, it was obviously 2-0, Canada.

Szabados grinned when asked what she thought of that goal from her captain. “I’m sure it’ll be on a highlight reel,” she said, “but I’ve seen her do it on myself many times in practice, so it didn’t really surprise me.”

Raty had no chance on either of the first two goals. And soon after, you would have thought it was 3-0, when Natalie Spooner appeared to bang one home — “it looked like it was in,” Agosta said — but the ref called it no goal.

Canada kept pressing, still. Jill Saulnier scored her first-ever Olympic goal on a breakaway, thanks to a nice stretch pass from Rebecca Johnston, and Daoust fired a wrist shot through traffic to make it 4-0 in the second. The Finns, on the other hand, didn’t really show up for this one until the third. Szabados faced just five shots in the opening period, and five in the second.

The Finn who did manage to beat Szabados made history in doing so, and not because she’s the only woman to score on Canada so far in this tournament. At the 47:17 mark, 44-year-old Riika Valila became the oldest woman to score in a hockey game at the Olympics. And after Valila put that one in, Finland seemed to wake up. They finally generated scoring chances in bunches, and Susanna Tapani even found herself on a breakaway, though Szabados made the pad save to keep Canada’s lead at three.

It could’ve been worse for the Finns, who gave up a barrage of two-on-ones. Raty made two beauty saves, nearly back-to-back, on a pair of two-on-ones in the third, the first off a shot from Brianne Jenner, and then a good look from defenceman Brigette Lacquette.

Raty walked through the media zone wearing no hint of a smile on Tuesday. Nothing went right for the netminder: Canadian forward Jennifer Wakefield even fell on the Finn’s head in the third, and Raty got up slowly.

Less than a year ago, Finland beat Canada at the world championship in round-robin play, and so you expected them to put up a bigger fight here. Canadian head coach Laura Schuler said her players living and training together for the last year in the lead-up to these Games was the difference.

“No. 1, it’s just centralization [in Calgary] and the opportunity to be able to coach a team full time, and now these girls are getting all the support services that they have in place to be the best they can be,” Schuler explained. “There’s so much more time to be able to teach.”

Despite the fact her team went 0-for-5 on the power play against Finland, Schuler is encouraged with their offensive output so far. How could she not be. “I’m happy about it,” she said, with a laugh. “I think that our team’s definitely capable of producing a lot of offence and I do like where our team’s at.”

Szabados sure was happy with what she saw from her teammates, offensively. So, no, it didn’t come as a shock that they managed to score four times on Tuesday.

“Noora’s a great goalie, but I face these girls every day in practice, so I know what they can do,” Szabados said. “We know as a team we just gotta get to the net early. They made some amazing plays today, some great goals, some gritty goals.”

Next up, it’s the big one: Canada faces the reigning world champion Americans on Thursday in round-robin play.

If you ask Szabados, you ought to expect more of the same.

“The team’s in a good spot right now,” she said. “We have some amazing forwards with some poise and some patience and some great shots. I’m not really surprised with what they’ve been putting forth.”

Then the goalie rolled on off to the dressing room to celebrate this second win with her teammates. The biggest test is still ahead.

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