- Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - The American shots came in rapid succession: 59 of them in all when Finnish goalie Noora Raty faced the United States at the home of the “Miracle on Ice.”

She stopped all but one.

In leading Finland to a win last fall at the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, Raty gave her country a rare victory over the Americans and reminded the women’s hockey world that no matter the history, no matter the rankings, no matter if it’s men or women wearing the skates, a strong goalie can make all the difference.

“It’s the same for all goalies,” Raty said this week after practice at the Shayba Ice Arena. “If you don’t play well, your team doesn’t have a chance to win.”

The United States and Canada have dominated women’s international hockey so thoroughly for so long that a loss to any other team is shocking. But for even longer, hockey has been a sport that relies greatly on goaltending.

Like a baseball pitcher with pinpoint control or an NFL quarterback with a rocket arm, a goaltender on a hot streak can turn an also-ran into a contender.

In Sochi, Raty might just be that goalie and she could prove it Saturday when Finland takes on the United States on the opening day of the women’s Olympic tournament.

“She’s one of the best goaltenders in the world,” said American defenseman Megan Bozek, a roommate and teammate of Raty’s at the University of Minnesota. “It’s hard to score on her, but I think it makes it that much sweeter when you do get that goal.”

In the day’s other game, three-time defending Olympic gold medalist Canada will play the fourth-seeded team, Switzerland.

Raty may only be 24, but she has been on her national team since she was 15 and already has two Olympics behind her.

She helped Finland reach the podium in Vancouver with a 3-2, overtime victory over Sweden in the bronze medal game.

At Minnesota, she led the Gophers to back-to-back NCAA championships, including one in her senior year to complete a 41-0-0 record. The victory in Lake Placid was the Finns’ first against the U.S. in the history of the Four Nations tournament; they have never beaten the Americans in the Olympics, either.

“I kind of wish that game had happened here because it was once in a lifetime,” Raty said. “But you never know. It might happen again.”

Because of a format change instituted to make the tournament more competitive, the United States is grouped with the rest of the world’s top teams in the round-robin. That means instead of warming up with a 12-1 victory over China, like they did in Vancouver, the Americans’ first opponent is a favorite to reach the podium.

So the U.S. players know there will be no time to ease into things. And coach Katey Stone said the loss to Finland provided her team with “a huge wakeup call” that it needed to improve for the Olympics.

“I don’t think we’ll make that mistake again, knowing what Finland can do to us,” said U.S. forward Amanda Kessel, another former college teammate of Raty‘s. “I think that’s a lesson for us. She’s standing on her head, but if she’s making that many saves we’re obviously not shooting in the right place.”


Follow Jimmy Golen on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/jgolen .

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