The Arkells song Years in the Making blares inside Beijing’s Wukesong Arena every time the Canadian women score a goal. Opposing teams in this Olympic hockey tournament must be hearing the Hamilton rock band in their nightmares by now.
The Canadians beat Switzerland 10-3 in Monday’s Olympic semi-final, unsurprisingly booking a spot in the gold-medal final on Thursday. Canada’s women have outscored their opponents 54-8 in six games in Beijing, a new record for goals in an Olympic tournament.
Canada keeps alive its streak of playing in every gold medal game since women’s hockey made its debut at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. It sets up a rematch with the reigning Olympic champion Americans, who beat Finland 4-1 in the later semi-final.
Some say Canada’s undefeated run has been a cakewalk in Beijing. You won’t catch a Canadian player agreeing with that.
“It’s not easy to be there. It might seem like it is, but it’s not,” said captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who has four goals and 10 assists in Beijing. “The girls go day in and day out to get better as a group, and that’s what we’ve done all year through COVID, through Zoom calls. I think the girls are committed and we’ve been dialled in since August in Calgary.”
The Canadians use an interchangeable system. Defenders frequently jump into the play and get offensively active. This 6-0 Canadian squad doesn’t just look like the best team in the Olympic tournament. They’re perhaps the hottest-scoring female Olympic hockey squad ever assembled.
The Canadians have had 15 goal scorers through six games, and boast five of the top 10 goal scorers in the tournament. Canada’s Brianne Jenner tops all scorers in these Games with nine goals, while rookie Sarah Fillier is second with eight. The offence has come from all angles – every single skater on the team has recorded at least one assist.
“I think a lot of the credit is for our coach, Troy Ryan. I think he’s given us some great systems that allow us to be creative,” Jenner said. “In order to get the creativity, you’ve got to have some structure to work off of. He’s given us that structure and that green light.”
This scoring tally beats the 48 goals Canada scored at the 2010 Vancouver Games, but there were fewer teams then, and they played just five games.
The Canadians relentlessly press opponents for every minute of the game. They suffocate teams with their speed at all times. Rarely does an opposing player carry the puck uncontested for even a second without a Canadian bearing down on her. Ryan encourages the women to play positionless, welcoming Canada’s blueliners to drive offence off the rush or in the zone.
“It’s so much fun for us defencemen to be honest,” said Canadian defender Renata Fast. “If you look at the NHL and different pro levels around the world, that’s what the game is changing to. So for us to be given that green light to float around and everyone will be interchangeable out there. It causes a ton of confusion for the opponents.”
The Canadians – like the Americans – have been in a centralized training camp together for six months. The Swiss players were off playing with their European clubs or U.S college teams until shortly before departing for Beijing.
The Swiss held Canada goalless for close to 10 minutes to start on Monday. While Switzerland has some strong individual talents, quickly, Canada’s superior skill and preparation became obvious.
Switzerland’s goalie, Andrea Brandli, who is in her senior season at Ohio State University, stoned Canada in the first dozen shots she faced. No. 13 was a wrist shot from the point by Canadian blueliner Claire Thompson that whistled over her blocker at the 11-minute mark and opened the floodgates.
Thompson’s marker was the first of five Canadian goals scored in 3½ minutes – by Jamie Lee Rattray, then Blayre Turnbull, Fast, then Erin Ambrose.
The Arkells song was playing so often, it felt like the arena DJ just hit the skip button and walked away. The goals were coming so fast, the announcer was racing to get the scorers’ names out of his mouth before the next puck was in the net. The Canadian women have a friendship with the Arkells (the band has had a few video calls with the team). But even the most ardent fan has to be growing weary of the familiar goal song by now.
The Swiss pulled their star goalie before the first period was over.
The Swiss women took bronze at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and will play for it again this week in Beijing – against the Finns.
Poulin continued to dazzle with her generational skill Monday, from astounding edge work to a pair of third period goals. On the last she faked to her backhand, outlasted the sprawling Swiss goalie, and popped it top shelf.
Does she still surprise her team with her talent?
“All the time,” said Ryan, the coach. “Some of the plays she’s making, you can’t draw that stuff up. You just got to let her play, let her find people that are open, and they just play so well off each other.”
Humble Poulin turns it around and praises her coaches, their system and the video work they prepare. She pushes away the notion that Beijing so far has been a breeze for Canada.
“It’s not easy. Trust me, there’s hard work that’s put in behind the scenes that not a lot of people see,” the captain said. “We take a lot of pride in it, and we’re very happy to be in that final but, again, the work is not done.”
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