'People need to be patient'
SOCHI, Russia -- To understand the degree to which the United States women's hockey team dominated Switzerland on Monday, all you had to do was listen to the fans inside Shayba Arena.
There, beyond the gaudy statistics that included a 9-0 final score, 13 different Americans tallying points and a 53-10 shot differential, was an explanation. It was simple, really. Each of the few times the Swiss managed to break free and head toward the American net with purpose and possibility, the arena erupted in cheers.
It wasn't sarcasm, mind you, but encouragement. Shoot, shoot. You can do it. Of course, anytime a Swiss player escaped, within seconds an American defender would arrive and poke the puck away, and that would be that. The one time a breakaway turned into an actual Swiss shot in the third period, U.S. goaltender Molly Schaus caught it before any damage could be done. The stadium erupted anyway because, well, it was an actual shot by the Swiss.
After the game, the emotions of U.S. coach Katey Stone were mixed. On one hand, she couldn't have been happier. Her team has a monumental game on Wednesday against bitter rival Canada and yet refused to overlook the undermanned Swiss. They controlled possession throughout the game, were dangerous in the offensive zone and, even when the outcome had been decided, refused to back off. Still, Stone was forced to defend her sport when asked about the perceptions fueled by such a lopsided final score.
For several years, women's hockey has been desperately trying to level the playing field between the United States and Canada and the rest of the world. It was in 2010, after the Canadians and Americans dominated play in Vancouver, that then-IOC president Jacques Rogge hinted the sport might not have an Olympic future if it didn't become more globally competitive.
"We cannot continue without improvement," he said then.
The International Ice Hockey Federation responded by tweaking the format for the World Championships and these Olympics, placing the world's top four teams in the same preliminary group.
After Monday's game against the fourth-ranked Swiss, Stone told the story of watching the thrilling Russia-Germany game Sunday and refusing to leave the arena because the atmosphere was so electric.
"I think there's so much more to this game than a one-game statement," she said. "People need to be patient. There have been tremendous strides made in the sport of women's ice hockey. We should talk less about 'what if the gap is big' versus 'what else we can do to close the gap.' Kids are knocking themselves out, women are knocking themselves out, to put out the best possible product they can for our sport. It's only going to get better if people continue to stay positive."
It was Switzerland that faced the challenge of trying to stay positive after the Americans exploded in the first period for a five-goal barrage and a piece of Olympic history. Monique Lamoureux, Brianna Decker, Amanda Kessel (twice) and Hilary Knight all scored in a span of 6:22, and the team's first three goals came in a 55-second span, an Olympic record.
"They obviously have a great goaltender, but when we're coming that hard at her, it's hard to save all of them," Kessel said. "When that happens, we suck all the energy out of the other team. It's tough to get back on your feet. You just keep pounding them and pounding them."
Switzerland never recovered. Midway through the third period, it had as many shots (eight) as the Americans had goals. And Swiss goaltender Florence Schelling still stopped 44 shots in the game.
Coming into the game, the U.S. had outscored Switzerland 76-5 in eight meetings -- all victories. This was more of the same. By the end, even the most callous of observers had to in some small way feel bad. Right?
"I don't think the Swiss team wants us to feel bad for them," said American Julie Chu, who is playing in her fourth Olympic Games. "They are out there battling hard every shift, as well."
Teammate Jocelyne Lamoureux added: "I've played in games where the team just lays over after the first period, and I don't think that happened. I know it was a 9-0 game, but they didn't let us walk all over them. They played us hard, and that's what women's hockey needs."
None of this will be an issue Wednesday night, when the two top teams in the world meet. The Canadians are the three-time defending Olympic champions. The Americans have beaten their neighbors to the north in four straight games, the most recent a 3-2 victory in Toronto on Dec. 30. Since then, Stone said her team is tougher, more physical and playing with greater confidence.
"We feel as though collectively we've gotten a lot better," she said.
Wednesday's match is the first time since 1998 that the two favorites will meet in the preliminary round of an Olympics -- another benefit to the new format. When asked after Monday's win if that was a good thing, Kessel emitted a huge smile.
"Yeah," she said. "I'm excited. I can't wait."