SOCHI, Russia - The last time the U.S. Women’s National Team faced off against Finland, Noora Raty was laughing to herself and had American players wondering what they had to do to score.
Raty’s 58-save performance powered Finland to a 3-1 victory at the 2013 Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., and sent ripples through the women’s hockey world, marking the first time the U.S. missed out on playing in the championship game in the 18-year history of the event. The U.S. did not participate in the 2001 tournament in Finland due to the 9/11 attacks.
A similar result here on Saturday in the opening game of the women’s Olympic hockey tournament would send seismic tremors through a sport that is desperate for parity at the international level.
“I just remember that I was extremely lucky, but I guess I earned my luck,” Raty said of her effort back in November.
“At one point I remember I was laughing ‘how am I making all these saves.’ It was one of those games where you get in a zone and nothing goes by you. I hope the same thing happens tomorrow because that’s going to be needed.”
One major difference, Raty said, is that this time Amanda Kessel will be in the lineup for the U.S. The two were teammates on the University of Minnesota squad that won back-to-back NCAA titles. They were also finalists, along with their Gopher teammate Megan Bozek, for the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award.
“She’s the best player in the world right now,” Raty said. “It’s a good thing for other teams that she hasn’t been able to play the whole year, she would be a rock star if she was able to play the whole year.
“We need to be aware that she’s on the ice or for sure she will find the back of the net. It’s going to be a lot of fun to go against her. We had some real good battles in practice the past couple of years and I think we made each other better players.”
While a groin injury sidelined her for all of the Bring on the World Tour, Kessel has declared herself as 100 percent and ready to go in her first Olympics. And she can think of no better way to kick things off than to face her friend and former teammate.
“I think it should be interesting to watch because I know her spots and she knows where I like to shoot as well,” Kessel said. “I guess I can give my teammates a few good tips.”
Getting to Raty early may be a key for the U.S. squad that still remembers the events in Lake Placid more than three months earlier.
“I don’t think there is any secret to beating her. If there is I haven’t found it yet. She’s a world-class goaltender,” said Megan Bozek, who led the U.S. attack with 11 shots on Raty the last time they met.
“She’s kept Finland in many games and was a big reason why they upset us at the Four Nations. Shots. Lots of shots early on, keep shooting and get people in front of the net.”
The victory in Lake Placid, which the Finns call their own “Miracle on Ice,” has provided the team with a shot of confidence heading into Sochi.
“We haven’t had much success against them in the past four years. I think the last time we beat them was before Vancouver so it was a confidence builder for our team and especially the younger players,” Raty said.
For their part, the Finns have spent hours watching the tape of the game and will look to exploit any weakness to gain an advantage.
“I remember that we killed a lot of penalties in that game so we can learn from what we did on the PK and what they’re going to try to do on their power play,” Raty said. “But we’ve played them quite a few times over the last few years so we know what to expect.”
As much as the victory was a shot in the arm for the Finns, it provided a kick in the pants for the Americans, who made some changes to their training regiment heading down the homestretch. Among those changes has been the implementation of small area games into every U.S. practice.
“Back in November I didn’t think we were a very good team so we went to condensing what we were doing, forcing them to make decisions faster, using better support, coming back to the puck,” said U.S. head coach Katey Stone.
And while they know that much of the focus will on the Finnish netminder, the Americans know that they need to worry about themselves and play their own style of attacking hockey if they want to be successful.
“She’s an incredible goalie, and she has a solid team in front of her, too,” said U.S. power forward Lyndsey Fry. “But we’re a different team now, and we’re going to throw everything at her. I think if we play our game we can put pucks behind her.
“We’ve just grown so much. The last time we played them was in November and here we are. Our goal is to get better every day and I think we’ve done that. We’re a better team than we were back then, and I’m sure she’s a better goalie so it’s going to be a great battle.”