With another pair of wins ― 3-2 on Monday and 3-1 last Friday ― the Canadian women’s hockey team has bested the U.S., in all four matchups so far this year. But both teams have plenty to learn from their latest meetings.
On the back of strong goaltending, quick starts, and reliable performances from its top forwards, Canada found a way to capitalize without ever trailing in two back-and-forth affairs.
And if anyone questioned whether forward Sarah Fillier could maintain her impressive form from the world championship in August, the 21-year-old’s three goals in two games against the Americans provided an ample answer.
Fillier’s knack for eluding defenders and finding open space has been lethal, with two goals on the power play this series and another at even strength, on top of her six points at worlds.
Two-time Olympic champion Cheryl Pounder says Fillier has shown off a versatile skillset with the intelligence and creativity to match. Rather than force a move that’s unlikely to succeed, she changes pace and positioning to open up new lanes.
“She will take two crossovers outside of the [faceoff] dot in order to get the [defencemen] to turn their feet,” Pounder explained, describing the young centre’s attributes as a powerful combination.
However, while the Canadians often managed to pin the U.S. in its own zone, particularly on Friday, they struggled to convert possessions into scoring chances.
The American defence shored up a key weakness from the world championship, frequently containing the puck along the boards and limiting passing options.
“The defence on their side seemed more prepared for the pressure that Canada is giving them,” Pounder noted. “At the world championship, Canada was relentless on the puck, and they really hadn’t been in that situation before where they had no time or space.”
WATCH | Fillier scores twice, pots winner as Canada tops U.S.:
Converting goals problem for both countries
Difficulty generating dangerous opportunities wasn’t just a Canadian problem. Team USA outshot its counterpart 29-19 in the first game, but managed only one goal. Lyndsey Fry, a 2014 Olympian with the Americans, chalks it up to a question of quality versus quantity.
“The U.S. was doing a lot of stuff on the outside, and you have to be willing to drop that shoulder, be willing to get pulled down, try to get into those dirty areas to be able to score at this level,” Fry said. “It’s incredibly hard to score outside the dots when you’re playing against the best goalies in the world.”
Two of the Americans’ three goals in the series came on the power play ― a marked improvement on an uncharacteristically low 12.5 per cent efficiency at worlds, but reflective of a struggle to set things up at even strength.
“I’d like to see people finding some space,” said Fry. “Everybody was trying to force it through the middle, rush it through the neutral zone. I think Team USA is best when they regroup, they create some space for themselves, they move the puck around, they find the open player with speed. And I don’t think we saw a lot of that [on Monday].”
Active sticks from both sides led to a number of turnovers, with both teams frequently intercepting an opponent’s pass and attempting to break out in transition. Neither seemed to consistently execute, though, instead exchanging short-lived rushes ― especially in the second game.
“Canada needs to find ways to generate off the rush,” Pounder said. “I find supporting the puck quickly is something that they need to do a better job of so that they can make those three, four-foot passes, get in and create seams and lanes, and not force it.”
Canada’s Shelton impressive
Ella Shelton, who assisted on Friday’s winning goal, is one player who impressed Pounder in that area.
“She follows up the play, but she doesn’t follow it up with an uncalculated risk,” Pounder explained. “I think she’s picked her moments very well for a young blue-liner.”
By the time these squads next meet on Nov. 21 in Kingston, Ont., both coaches will likely be seriously considering cuts as the Olympics draw closer. While the U.S., rotated in all of its skaters during this series and experimented with line combinations, Canada stayed largely consistent.
But before their next clash with the Americans, Canada’s next international competition will come in a three-game series against Finland from Nov. 11-14, and Pounder sees clear areas for growth.
“They’ll want to provide support on the entry, and good reads,” she said. “You want to be able to have varied attacks, and that’s what makes you successful.”
Team USA had planned a series against Russia in Belfast, Northern Ireland, that same week, but a cancellation by the Russians leaves the team looking to fill the gap.