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Women's hockey could use a competitive semifinal or two

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Goaltenders have a way of being quick to the point, so it's no surprise Finland goalie Noora Raty cut to the chase ahead of Monday's women's hockey semifinals at Canada Hockey Place:

"We can't lose that game 10-0. It's so bad for women's hockey. We have to play a good game and show everybody women's hockey belongs to the Olympics."

That goes right to the heart of what how supporters of the women's game might be thinking about Monday's Sweden-U.S. and Canada-Finland semis.

International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel gave the sport a vote of confidence late last week.

Some media coverage has seemed tilted toward a mindset that has some issues with women's sports – or just doesn't want a reminder that hockey's lack of growth relative to basketball and soccer might come back to the NHL's inability to market globally (as Fasel pointed out last week right on front of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman).

Still, perception is reality. Most of us follow only the Olympics – so Finland and Raty, the NCAA's leading goaltender, and Sweden with Kim Martin could do everyone a favor by keeping it competitive Monday.

Finland has beaten the U.S. twice in the past two years and has a history of frustrating Canada, going back to the glory days of Tuula Puputti. The Vancouver Province noted that Finland held Canada to a 4-2 score when the teams played in November in Finland. The Finns have a nothing-to-lose attitude, so they that got that goin' for them, which is nice.

Keep an eye on the reaction if Canada does end up winning by a lot – a distinct possibility. Canada has veterans who go all the way back to the first Olympic women's hockey in 1998 (Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Jennifer Botterill, defender Becky Kellar), complemented by young talents such as 18-year-old Marie-Philip Poulin. As previously noted, other teams improved, but Canada and the U.S. improved more.

The other big question is whether Canada starts Shannon Szabados or Kim St-Pierre in goal, since that might be a tipoff on who would start the gold-medal game. St-Pierre has more experience (but anyone who watched the Canadian men's team knows how that can turn out).

The other semifinal has two good storylines. Martin has completely changed her style of play since stoning the U.S. in that 2006 semifinal in Turin. And U.S. coach Mark Johnson is marking the 30th anniversary – to the day – of his scoring two goals in the Miracle on Ice (but he prefers to put the focus on his players).

It is hard to imagine a repeat of 2006, especially considering that Sweden and the U.S. have each had a radical change (nine and 15 new players, respectively). Team USA goalie Jessie Vetter, who along with Johnson won the NCAA title for the Wisconsin Badgers last season, is unscored upon, so there's suspense about how she'll react if and when she lets in a goal.

The upshot of the past week is that the media have done a good job of highlighting how wide the gaps are among nations' support for women's hockey, even if some don't want to hear it. The Canadian Press preview noted that Finland had only 25 games before the Olympics, compared with Canada's 55.

Hockey Canada's director of female hockey, Julie Healy, pointed out Sunday that Canada and the U.S. actually foot some of the bill for other national teams to come play games in North America. Healy also mentioned that "Canada and Finland are working out the details for an under-18 exchange that would send six athletes and two coaches abroad for a few weeks annually starting in the summer of 2011" (to build off an earlier post).

Meantime, though, they still have to play the Games. Maybe a massive upset will happen on the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice. More likely, it comes down to hope that the Scandinavian stoppers, Raty and Martin, keep it interesting.

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