By RACHEL BLOUNT
SOCHI, RUSSIA—No one appreciates Noora Raty’s skill in the net more than her former Gophers teammates. During her years at the U, the Finnish goaltender backstopped her team to two NCAA titles and won more games than any other woman to play college hockey.
That makes it all the more challenging when the old friends find themselves on opposite sides, as they did Saturday in the opening game of the women’s hockey tournament at the Sochi Winter Games. And it made it all the more satisfying for the United States to earn a 3-1 victory over Finland. Of the five current or former Gophers on the American team, four played with Raty, and they knew how hard it would be to get past one of the best goalies in the game.
Scoring a goal 53 seconds into the game helped. So did a 43-15 advantage in shots on goal. Flashing the speed and power they hope will propel them to a gold medal, the Americans used goals from Hilary Knight, Kelli Stack and Alex Carpenter to build a 3-0 lead and start the Olympic tournament in sharp style.
“We wanted to get a lot of shots on Noora, early and often from any angle,’’ said former Gophers defenseman Megan Bozek, who assisted on the Americans’ second goal. “She’s incredible. As the game went on, she made some phenomenal saves out there.
“Hats off to Noora. But we found a way to score early, and that was one of our keys to the game. So good for us.’’
At the Four Nations tournament in November, Raty’s brilliance propelled the Finns to a 3-1 upset of the U.S., their first victory over the Americans in four years. Finland hired a highly regarded strength coach last summer, which Raty said has vastly improved her team’s fitness. It also has brought aboard goaltending coach Andrew Kent, a former goaltender at Augsburg College who coached Raty with the Gophers.
Saturday, she fell victim to an early mistake by a teammate and some unlucky bounces. After Emma Terho lost the puck in the neutral zone, Knight pounced on it and skated in on a breakaway to beat Raty with a wrist shot before a minute had elapsed. Stack batted an airborne puck past Raty early in the second period, and Carpenter’s power-play goal—set up by former Gopher Anne Schleper of St. Cloud—came when she snared a hard bounce off the end boards and shoveled in a backhander.
Raty did stop 10 shots from her former teammates, and she was happy that her team improved as the game went along. The Finns avoided a shutout in the third, when U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter gave up a power-play goal to Susanna Tapani on an assist from Michelle Karvinen. Tapani and Karvinen are teammates at the University of North Dakota.
“Whenever some of my (former) teammates get the puck, I almost start smiling,’’ Raty said. “It’s a lot of fun. I always get excited when I make a save against them. But if we don’t play in the gold-medal game, I really hope the U.S. can win the tournament.’’
The U.S. will face Switzerland on Tuesday, while Finland will play Canada.