BURLINGTON, Vt. — Much of the past year in college hockey has been spent pondering the question, who can stop Minnesota juniors Krissy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz?
Don’t expect the World Champion Canadians with their patchwork roster to have the answer when Darwitz and Wendell don American jerseys at this week’s Four Nations Cup, the premier international women’s hockey event left this year.
Will Canada slow the pair down? No question. But will they be stopped? That’s doubtful. Given how low-scoring the Canada vs. U.S. games have been in the past year of international competition between the two, just a few slips by Canada defending the Minnesota duo should be enough to ensure U.S. victory.
The limited preparation time the U.S. and Canada have for competitions other than the Olympics makes it difficult for teams to develop the synergy necessary to score against the World-class defense and goaltenders on the other sides. As a result, the scores at the end of regulation of the last four U.S.-Canada games have been remarkably low – 2-0 U.S., 1-1 tie (U.S. wins shootout) at the 2003 Four Nations Cup, and 3-1 U.S., 2-0 Canada at the 2004 World Championships last April.
So that’s six goals for the U.S., and four goals for Canada, and only the cream of the crop have lit the lamp. For the U.S., that’s Darwitz, Wendell, Cammi Granato and Katie King. For the Canadians, that’s UMD senior Caroline Ouellette, Hayley Wickenheiser and former Harvard star Jennifer Botterill. Canada defenseman Delaney Collins (now Collins-Pye after her marriage to Canadian Armed Forces sergeant Brent Pye) also earned one garbage goal in the gold medal final that was almost entirely the result of Cherie Piper’s skating. Piper, the Dartmouth junior, has shown an extraordinary ability to step up in important Canadian games, none bigger than the 2002 Olympic gold medal game when she set up Ouellette for Canada’s first goal in the opening minutes.
The bad news for Canada? Botterill, Ouellette and Piper aren’t on the team. Botterill was unable to try out with the team due to a concussion, although she is playing in the NWHL and had a four-goal effort on Nov. 8th. Ouellette was a late scratch due to a broken pinky suffered during last weekend’s games against Wisconsin. As for Piper, she was inexplicably left off the roster.
Without those veterans, there’s a disproportionate burden placed on the younger Canadian players. Much has been made of the line of ‘kids’ – Dartmouth junior Katie Weatherston, high school senior Meghan Agosta and recent St. Lawrence graduate Gina Kingsbury that produced four goals in an 8-0 exhibition win over Finland, but there’s little reason to expect they will be as successful against the U.S. Keep in mind that most of the Canadian U-22 players struggled to score against even the U.S. Under-22 team this past summer, let alone the U.S. national team.
Weatherston, the reigning USCHO.com Player of the Week, is certainly among the hottest players in the college country right now, but her success has not translated well to elite competition thus far in her career. In her seven games against the Frozen Four teams last college season (St. Lawrence, Dartmouth and Minnesota), Weatherston had just one goal and that was in a consolation game. She still has a long way to go to prove herself as a world-class player. While Weatherston has a bright future, Canada’s best bets for scoring in this tournament are the other remaining veteran forwards aside from Wickenheiser, such as Jayna Hefford, the most outstanding forward of the most recent world championship.
Even if Canada can find a way to score goals on the United States, there’s reason to doubt that the Canadian defense can be as successful keeping pucks out of the net. Only three of the six defensemen return from the 2004 Canadian World Championship team, because Therese Brisson is injured, Brown alum Becky Kellar is pregnant and Gillian Ferrari did not make the team. One of the new defenseman is Ohio State sophomore Tessa Bonhomme, who was on the ice for three Minnesota goals last Saturday. And most importantly, Canada will be missing goaltender Kim St. Pierre, who was the difference in Canada’s wins at the 2001 World Championships, the 2002 Olympics and the most recent 2004 World Championship.
Canada could still beat the U.S., but given all the youth and injuries, there’s no reason to expect a repeat of April’s 2-0 Canadian world championship win.
To close, here are three final factors working for the U.S. that were absent in April: