SOCHI, Russia — The idea was to use the “bandidos yanquis” solution from the end of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” — except with the yanquis on the firing end and Finnish goalie Noora Raty in their sights at high noon. “We stressed a lot of shots on Noora,” said defenseman Megan Bozek, who was her college roommate at Minnesota. “Early and often, any angle.”
But nobody on the United States women’s hockey team would have bet that the first one would go in and that the world champs would be up and away after just 53 seconds and go on to a 3-1 triumph in their Olympic debut at Shayba Arena on Saturday afternoon.
“Being able to break her on the first shot is pretty impressive,” said Hilary Knight, who pounced on a turnover by blue liner Emma Terho and dashed in alone for the fastest goal in a Games opener. The last time these teams met, in the Four Nations Cup in November, the US scored just once on 59 shots as Raty backstopped her mates to a 3-1 decision that reminded the Americans that their northern neighbors wouldn’t be the only rival they had to worry about at the Games.
So US coach Katey Stone was delighted to find that Suomi would be her team’s first opponent here. “It’s a great matchup,” she said. “When I realized that we were playing Finland I just thought, that is awesome.”
There was no chance the Yanks would look past the Finns, not after the loss at Lake Placid and not after last year’s world semifinals, where the US didn’t score until there were barely six minutes to play. And not after what they’ve seen Raty do over the years, most recently with the Gophers, where she stonewalled the rest of the country as the Gophers went 41-0.
Nobody knew how the Americans would come out of the gate here. They’d played well after their November hiccup, taking their final four December meetings with the Canadians, but hadn’t played a game in nearly six weeks, except for tuneups against boys’ varsities. So they were pleasantly surprised to beat Raty off the jump. “We came out flying,” said Stone. “To score in the first minute of the game, that set the tone.”
The longer Raty could have kept the US off the board, the likelier the chance of an upset. As it was, the global champs didn’t score again until the second period when the Boston College sorority of Kelli Stack and Alex Carpenter put in a couple of what Finnish coach Mika Pieniniemi called “oops! goals.”
Stack crafted a YouTube moment, bouncing the puck off her chest and then swatting it past Raty. Then Carpenter ricocheted one off defender Jenni Hiirikoski and into the cage for a 3-0 lead.
“We talk a lot about how there are no snapshots on the scorecard,” observed Stone. “If it’s an ugly one, it’s an ugly one. And sometimes against a fantastic goaltender, that’s how you have to get it done.” Raty still made 40 saves despite being hit in the throat. “They got a few lucky bounces but they definitely earned their luck today — they were the better team,” Raty acknowledged.
Coming into these Games, the US figured to be better than everybody. The Canadians, who later zapped the Swiss, 5-0, may have won the last three Olympic titles but the Americans have claimed four of the last five world crowns. Not that it counts for much at the Games. The Yanks were global titlists going into both Turin and Vancouver and watched the Maple Leaf go up highest at the medal ceremony.
“To win a silver medal you have to lose,” mused Stack. “It didn’t feel like we had won anything. We lost the gold. It didn’t make up for it beating Canada in the world championships the following year. The world championships are not the Olympics.”
Even a silver medal is not guaranteed as the US found out in Turin, when they lost to the Swedes in a shootout in the semifinals after leading, 2-0. The rest of the world is improving with former also-rans finding they can narrow the gap with a terrific goalie. The Finns have Raty and the Swiss have Florence Schelling, the former Northeastern sensation who’s playing in her third Games at 24 and who was the first woman to play in the Swiss men’s National B league.
Two years ago at the world tournament she made 50 saves as the Swiss blitzed Raty and the Finns, 6-2, to make the podium for the first time. On Saturday she stopped 64 shots to keep a 5-0 defeat from being double digits. “These are the games I really love,” said Schelling, after her colleagues had produced their best result ever against the Canadians. “You are busy for 60 minutes.”
The Americans aim to keep Schelling moving like an arcade duck on Monday afternoon. Another victory will clinch them a spot in the semifinals regardless of their result against the Canadians on Wednesday. Saturday was about winning the game at hand. “One win in the basket is good for us,” concluded captain Meghan Duggan.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.