As far as tests go, the Olympic athletes from Russia really didn’t offer much of one for Canada’s skaters. They clutched and grabbed and hacked and slashed to try and slow down the four-time defending Olympic champions, using any means they could to contain their faster and stronger opponents.
Goaltender Nadezhda Morozova, on the other hand, gave the Canadian women fits, at least during a 15-save first period in which she very easily could have surrendered five or six goals. And it’s in their persistence and tenacity around the goal that Canada can probably draw the most good from in its Pyeongchang Games opener, a 5-0 victory Sunday night at Kwandong Hockey Centre.
Up until Rebecca Johnston broke through 1:55 into the second period, converting on a centring pass after some nice digging behind the net by Brianne Jenner, and then 2:18 later sent in a point shot that Haley Irwin cleverly tipped eight seconds into a power play, Morozova was Russia’s only answer.
But the Canadians’ pressure was relentless and rather than trying to get cute to beat a goalie doing more than her share, they stuck to their game, throwing pucks to the net, cycling along the boards and skating the Russians into the ground.
“It was important for us to make sure we were playing our game and our system,” said head coach Laura Schuler. “Even after that first period, I was really happy with our performance, even though we didn’t put the puck in the net. We had a lot of good looks and a lot of good chances, not just from one line but from all four lines.”
That balance and depth wore down the Russians.
Melodie Daoust made it 3-0 with at 15:58 of the second when she shovelled in a beautiful cross-ice feed from Meghan Agosta, Johnston added her second at 8:41 of the third with two Russians in the box, and 2:03 later Daoust added her second, mercifully ending Morozova’s night.
“In the first period, we had a lot of great chances and we kind of just needed to outwork the goalie,” said Agosta, seeking her fourth gold medal at these Games. “Come the second period we ended up burying those chances and kept going. We didn’t get frustrated at all.”
The Canadians’ dominance allowed Ann-Renee Desbiens to enjoy a relatively low-stress Olympic debut, making 18 saves.
Canada has won gold at four straight Olympics since losing to the United States when women’s hockey debuted at the 1998 Nagano Games and the expectation is that the Americans will once again be the prime obstacle to gold.
But Finland, a 3-1 loser to the U.S. earlier in the day, and a Russian team that had six players banned for life by the International Olympic Committee in December related to the Sochi doping scandal, presented intriguing potential wild cards.
The absent players “didn’t affect the spirit of the team,” Russian coach Alexei Chistyakov said through an interpreter. “However, if they were present here, it would have contributed to the play, and maybe contribute to resisting the onslaught of the Canadian team in a better way.”
Morozova, the cousin of former NHLer Alexei Morozov, was essentially left to repel the attack on her own.
The Canadians were so stifling in the first period, the shots on goal were 15-3 and that flattered the Russians, who barely managed to break into the offensive zone. Jennifer Wakefield had the best chance of the period, firing a puck off the crossbar midway through.
“We know these teams, they play high in the neutral zone, play a 1-3-1, so for us, we’ve got to keep playing our game and stay calm,” said captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who picked up three assists. “That’s what we did and in the second and third we put the puck in and [we’re] really happy with that.”
The Russian forwards had their best moments in the second, especially after falling behind 2-0, with their first sustained pressure coming midway through the period, when Valeria Pavlova danced in front and fired a shot Desbiens handled.
She made another strong save later in the shift and had to make eight saves in total during the middle frame.
By the third the Russians had caved, leading to the add-on goals from Johnston and Daoust.
“It was honest hockey, blue-collared hockey, not be scared to get physical, get pucks in behind them and win foot races,” said Schuler. “The Olympics are about heart and soul, giving it your all and that’s going to be important for us moving forward.”
The Canadians face Finland on Tuesday before matching up versus the Americans on Thursday to close out the preliminary round, having breezed through their first test building for the exam soon coming up.