Covering international women's hockey tournaments hasn't been the most fulfilling experience in recent years, but it looks like the current IIHF World Women's Hockey Championships are at least providing a mild breath of fresh air to the established pecking order. In Winterthur and Zürich, the host Swiss team are trying to play for a medal at the tournament, something they've only done once before, when they finished 4th in 2008. The rigid groupings of international women's hockey generally sees the Americans and Canadians battle for top spot, with Finland and Sweden always being a step ahead of the other European nations to battle almost exclusively for bronze. The Swiss finished 5th at last year's Olympics, so they're the obvious next in line, but upsets in women's hockey are few and far between.
Luckily, we got a minor one this time. After a typical blowout loss to Canada (12-0), the Swiss played a much more controlled game against Finland, the 2010 Olympic bronze medallists. Despite a strong start, they found themselves down 1-0 after the first, and in the second the Finns attacked relentlessly, but could not solve Florence Schelling, Switzerland's 22 year old goalie that plays in the NCAA for Northeastern University. A late power play goal by Nicole Bullo tied it up, and the teams played a fairly wide open, but scoreless third period. In the second minute of overtime, the 2117 spectators went home happy thanks to Stefanie Marty (Syracuse, NCAA). The rest of Group B went according to plan: Kazakhstan lost all their games, Canada won all of theirs (though they only beat Finnish goalie Noora Raty once on 49 shots for a 2-0 win), and so the OT win by Switzerland will have them finish second in the group.
That means they will play the winner of today's Russia-Slovakia game in the quarterfinal, with the winner advancing to likely play the USA in the semis. Finland looks like they'll play Sweden in the quarterfinal rather than for the bronze medal, giving someone new a shot at some hardware for a change.
While Slovakia might be the most improved women's hockey nation of recent years, they still are a ways off competing for a medal. They lost to the USA 5-0, and the Swedes 3-0, and while those are respectable scores, the real reason behind those lower goal totals was the play of goaltender Zuzana Tomcikova. Tomcikova is one of the top goaltenders in the WCHA (2009-10 Co-Player of the Year), playing for the Bemidji State Beavers, and one begins to understand why Slovakia continue to punch above their weight in international competition. Slovakia plays Russia today in a battle for third place in Group A, and even though the nation is playing in their first World Championships (though they qualified for the 2010 Olympics, finishing eighth out of eight teams), they have an outside shot now of playing for a medal. Even if they come up short, Tomcikova's heroics could at least help save them from relegation to Division 1.
Tomcikova's stats this tournament? 71 saves vs. Sweden and 58 saves vs. the USA, for a .942 SV% against two of the top four teams. Her WCHA stats? A .933 SV% this past year, .938 in 2009-10, and .917 as a freshman in 2008-09. She could very well be the top goalie in women's hockey at the moment, and at 5'11", she's also one of the tallest. Swedish captain Erika Holst had this to say about Tomcikova's game vs. Sweden on WINIH.com:
Their goalie (Zuzana Tomcikova) has good size and very good reactions, so she doesn’t leave much net open to shoot at and she is quick covering those few spots.My two assists were both shots from the blue line that was deflected so that was a good way to find the net.
Still, it is the unfortunate reality of women's hockey that star goaltenders are the biggest hope for upsets to occur. We've seen great goaltending performances from Tomcikova, Schelling, and Raty at this tournament so far, and in the past Kim Martin of Sweden was able to upset the global order by beating the USA in the 2006 Olympic semifinals to claim the silver medal at Turin. Maybe these goaltenders can help the rest of their teammates acclimatize to the higher level of competition, and genuine improvement will follow. For now, well, the best we can hope for is they screw up the established order more than every once in a while.