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With the precision of one of those pairs figure-skating maneuvers, the Super Bowl gathers up all its hype, pirouettes, and fades away, making the perfect handoff to hockey, which eagerly sweeps into the forefront on all levels.
Not the least of these, of course, is the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The UMD women’s team faces North Dakota in Saturday-Sunday afternoon battles at AMSOIL Arena, and the Bulldogs will be doing it with their top defensive pair in Sochi. Freshman flash Lara Stalder will play for Switzerland, while Tea Villila will play for Finland, although both of them insisted before they departed that part of their thoughts will be fixated on their college team.
“Our goal is a medal, and we don’t care what color it is,” said Villila, whose Finnish team gained respect by upsetting Team USA in the Four Nations Cup, behind the sensational goaltending of Noora Raty, the key ingredient of Minnesota’s 41-0 run to last year’s NCAA championship.
“She’s a good goaltender, for sure, and it helps us to know she has our backs,’ added Villila. “Anything can happen.”
Stalder will be joined by winger Nina Waidacher, one of three sisters from Switzerland on the St. Scholastica team. In a small country like Switzerland, all the elite players know each other, and Stalder said Swiss hopes are high, for the women as well as the men. “The men’s team shocked everyone at the World Championships last year by winning the Silver Medal,” Stalder said. “It’s the same for the women, where younger players are coming in more and more to improve the team. It would be cool if we could play for a medal.”
The men’s tournament starts next week, and it should truly be a wide-open affair, with Canada and the U.S. trying to adapt to the 15-feet-wider Olympic ice sheet against formidable powers from Sweden and Finland, resurgent Russia, the traditional strength of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and the suddenly risen star of Switzerland. Team USA’s youngest men’s player is 21-year-old Justin Faulk, who now plays for the Carolina Hurricanes but is best-remembered as a freshman power-play wizard on UD’s 2011 NCAA championship team.
The women’s tournament gets a 4-day head start on the men, opening long before dawn on Saturday when the U.S. faces Finland in an intriguing match, while Canada plays Switzerland in the second game. If you’re looking for those games live, the U.S.-Finland game is at 2 a.m. Saturday, while the Canada-Switzerland game is at 7 a.m. Those four teams comprise Group A, and they continue next Monday with the U.S.-Switzerland game at 4 a.m., and Finland-Canada at 9 a.m. The final round for A is next Wednesday, with Switzerland meeting Finland at 2 a.m. and the U.S.-Canada battle at 6:30 a.m.
Sweden, Japan, Russia and Germany are all in Group B, and will rotate foes Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday before the teams are seeded for quarterfinals.
The overwhelming odds favor a U.S.-Canada Gold Medal finale, simply because those two teams have been by far the strongest since women’s hockey was added to the Winter Olympics in 1998, and have met in the finale in every Olympics except 2006, when Sweden upset the U.S. behind the brilliant goaltending of a youthful Kim Martin, who then came and starred at UMD. The U.S. upset Shannon Miller’s Canada for the Gold in Nagano in 1998, but Canada hasn’t lost an Olympic game since then.
While the U.S. and Canada continue to escalate their personal duel by centralizing their teams for the entire season leading up to the Winter Games, there are signs that some of the other teams are becoming more competitive. If they are strong enough to spring an upset over the “Big Two,” chances are, UMD will have a hand in it.
In fact, while the University of Minnesota dominates Team USA’s roster, UMD has personal connections to seven of the eight women’s teams, with only Japan failing to be influenced by a Bulldog.
Team USA has Julie Chu participating for the fourth Olympics. Chu didn’t play at UMD, but after a stellar career at Harvard, she came to UMD to assist Miller between stints on the U.S. team.
Canada has two prominent Bulldogs, with Caroline Ouellette as Canada’s captain, playing in her fourth Olympics, and with three Gold Medals already in hand. Haley Irwin, a high-scoring forward for UMD, was Canada’s leading scorer last time when she won her second Gold.
Villila will try to help Finland get a medal, but arch-rival Sweden will be a strong challenger, led by Kim Martin’s goaltending. Pernilla Winberg and Jenni Asserholt are ex-Bulldogs playing in their third Olympics for Sweden.
Russia has made strong strides, and has two ex-UMD skaters in Iya Gavrilova and Aleksandra Vafina, both in their second Winter Games. Russia will face a couple other darkhorses trying to move up, with Stalder, Waidacher and Switzerland on one hand, and Germany -- led by former UMD goaltender Jennifer Harss, on the other.
That’s 11 players on seven of the eight women’s Olympic teams.