Showstoppers at the Rio Games five years ago, Canadian women swimmers are back in a big way serving notice they are driven to be a world powerhouse in their sport.
EDMONTON — They have been referred to, this pesky country of hockey hard workers, as a stone in every nation’s shoe that dares go into hockey battle against tiny — but mighty — Finland. Smaller in population than either Quebec or Ontario, the Finns have won three of the past seven world junior titles.
Well, sometimes the book is better than the movie.
If this was truly Canada’s first big test at the 2021 tournament, then they passed it like a kid that’s homeschooling — with the internet at their fingertips.
Dominant? The 4-1 final score does not begin to tell the tale of how simply possessing the puck for more than one pass in a row was a Herculean task for the Finns in the opening 40 minutes.
The shots on goal in Period 1? How does 17-1 sound, in favour of the red team?
“We were real fired up to get out there,” said Dylan Cozens, who scored the first and last goals of the evening. “I think that was our best period in the tournament so far.”
The shots were 35-7 after 40 minutes — 40-19 overall — and Canada cruises into the quarterfinals with a perfect 4-0 record, yet to be truly tested by a team that one might see as their equal.
“Team Canada, “ marvelled Finnish coach Antti Pennanen, “they were so good at the start of the game.”
Canada outscored its opponents 33-4 in the group stage. They allowed just 67 shots over four games, or 17 per game.
Unless Finland was playing rope-a-dope, it appears there are only three teams that can test Canada here, and they reside on the other side of the draw: Russia, the United States and Sweden. Canada will likely see only one or two of those teams, as it is the Czech Republic that awaits in Saturday’s sudden-death quarterfinal.
If Canada plays as well against the Czechs as they did Thursday versus Finland, they’ll win by five or six.
Buzz, Buzz, Buzz
Canada’s forecheck came like the tides — line, after line, after line. Like they were being attacked by a hive of bees, poor Finland must have felt like the only solution was to grab the puck and jump into a lake somewhere.
It is exactly the game head coach Andre Tourigny wants from his charges, and you could sense the confidence in his voice that the lessons he has been teaching have seeded, and are now growing roots.
“I said to our players, ‘You can be happy about a performance, or you can be proud of your performance. Both are good, but being proud of your performance is even better,’” Tourigny said after the game.
His players are catching what he’s pitching, and when the result produces a game this dominant against a good team like Finland, it builds that bond between player and coach.
“We came out and played our best game so far,” said Cozens, who has six goals and 11 points to lead Team Canada in both categories. “They had a tough time getting out of their zone… and it really showed our identity. Speed — we created a lot of turnovers and went the other way really quick.
“We’ve been a little bit (on the) perimeter so far. We really got inside tonight.”
Bowen Byram, the smooth-skating defenceman who looks like a lock to play 1,000 NHL games, agreed.
“Today was our best 60-minute effort. In the first two periods we were all over them,” he said. “It showed our identity. We’re happy, and on to the quarters.”
Yes, something truly did click for Canada on Thursday, perhaps due to the threat of defeat. Finland, it seems, made Canada dig a little deeper than Germany, Switzerland or Slovakia could, and what the Canadians found was golden.
“When you have that kind of depth, you need to exploit it,” Tourigny explained. “You play at a pace where you push the game to a level, and you can not do it for 45 or 50 seconds. You need to keep your shifts short — that’s 30, 40 seconds — then it’s next man up. Having four lines playing with a lot of pace, that’s what the boys are doing right now. Every time they go on the ice they play with a lot of energy, a lot of effort.
“They’re going balls out. That’s the way we’ll have success.”
A Finnish Finish
Somehow, someway, the Finns found themselves with their goalie pulled and pressure in the Canadian zone in the dying moments of the game. Just one shot away from a one-goal game with two minutes to play.
It was so Finnish: Dominated for 45 minutes, the score was still only 3-1. One good shot and it would have been 3-2, and then, who knows?
Alas, Cozens stole a puck and found the empty net, and there would be no Helsinki Heroes on this night.
“The start of the game, we weren’t ready at all. Team Canada was so good,” said head coach Pennanen. “They won all the battles, the loose pucks. We tried to improve those things, and I think we did. But we had some problems at the start of the game.
Team Canada was so good today. So many good players, well-coached… Such a good team.”
The Finns barely touched the puck in the first period. It was a shock. This wasn’t supposed to be so one-sided.
“They like to shoot the puck a lot — I had to be focussed all the time,” said starting goalie Kari Piroinen. “We knew what they’re going to do. But today we couldn’t find a way.”
Finland has won three of the last seven World Juniors, not bad for a country whose population is 5.5 million people. But they’ll have to find a completely new level to see Canada again — the game the Finns played Thursday won’t get them out of the quarterfinals.
“We didn’t play so good as last game (versus Slovakia),” admitted defenceman Mikko Kokkonen. “We didn’t get pucks out early, and we had to defend longer. We didn’t have the energy (to go on offence).”
TOKYO — It was far from the performance Felix Auger-Aliassime was hoping for in his Olympic debut.
Playing on centre court of Tokyo’s Ariake Tennis Park on Sunday, Auger-Aliassime was eliminated in just under two hours by a player ranked 190th in the world who was not even scheduled to compete.
Australian Max Purcell, replacing the injured Andy Murray, upset the 15th-ranked Canadian in straight sets 6-4, 7-6 (2) in the first round.
The 20-year-old Auger-Aliassime never got into any kind of rhythm, except for a three-game winning streak that saw him go from down 1-3 to up 4-3 in the second set.
The Montrealer’s performance otherwise did not live up to expectations.
“It’s difficult to explain,” said the ninth-seeded Auger-Aliassime a few minutes after the loss. “You have to give credit to Max for playing such a good match. Even if he’s more of a doubles player, he’s dangerous, he serves well.
“Despite everything, I still had chances to do better in this match. I had a very bad service game in the first set, which cost me. After that, I did not find ways to get back into the match. A little in the second set, but it was not enough.”
Purcell broke the Canadian to take a 4-3 lead in the first set and won all four points in the next game to go up 5-3.
“I played with confidence,” said Purcell. “I just had two great tournaments in singles. I won a Challenger just last week.
“I need to make the most every time I get in. I went out there thinking I could win, and I think I had just as much to lose as Felix in my mind.”
The Australian earned another break early in the second set to take a 3-1 lead. Auger-Aliassime then strung together his best tennis of the encounter, winning three games in a row to give renewed hope to his team gathered around the court.
But it was short-lived. The two players exchanged serves until the tiebreaker, where Auger-Aliassime fell flat.
“You always have to try to find solutions, to adapt,” said the Canadian. “It’s difficult, we don’t always play our best tennis. That was the case today.
“My first service game has been good. There was no reason (to struggle today). In training (Saturday), I served well. (Sunday,) I didn’t have a lot of good first serves, I couldn’t find the right pace.
“In the second set I started to serve better, but it was almost too late. He had gained confidence, he was leading the game and I was going through it. I tried to find solutions, but it didn’t work out.”
Auger-Aliassime was supposed to face Murray, but the two-time defending Olympic champion withdrew a few hours before his clash with the Quebecer.
Murray, 104th in the world, suffered a quadriceps injury in his right leg. He is still lined up to play the doubles portion of the tournament with teammate Joe Salisbury.
“It’s not easy for anybody, adjusting at the last second,” said Frank Dancevic, Auger-Aliassime’s coach. “You think you’re going to play one guy and somebody else comes, a different game style than Andy. So it was just a little bit of mental adjustment.”
Auger-Aliassime now turns his attention to mixed doubles, which kicks off later this week, with teammate Gabriela Dabrowski of Ottawa.
“It doesn’t change that much for me. Whether I play against Andy or Max, I had to play a good game” said Auger-Aliassime. “I would have had to find solutions.
“It for sure hurts. Coming here, I had the possibility of having a better tournament. Leaving so early is a bit unexpected and I am very disappointed. I have to accept it and I will try to bounce back in the mixed doubles.”
Purcell will next face Germany’s Dominik Koepfer, who downed Argentina’s Facundo Bagnis 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2021.
Showstoppers at the Rio Games five years ago, Canadian women swimmers are back in a big way serving notice they are driven to be a world powerhouse in their sport.
Anchored by yet another brilliant swim from 2016 superstar Penny Oleksiak, the 4 x 100-metre relay team claimed their country’s first medal at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday night, finishing second in the final.
It was a buoyant performance on the first medal night of the meet, immediately backing up the breakout six-medal heist the Canadian women extracted out of the pool in Brazil. The silver medals the four Canadian women placed around each other’s necks during the post-race ceremony were a shiny update from the bronze they captured in Brazil.
And the legend of Oleksiak continued as she won a fifth Olympic medal, tying middle-distance runner Phil Edwards and rowing coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willie for the most summer Olympic medals among Canadian athletes.
Based on the form the foursome flashed, Saturday’s effort set the tone for more success to come in the nine-day meet. Medal opportunities could come almost nightly and the confidence created from the opening silver could be huge for the Canadians who had far less racing opportunities than most of their competitors.
First-time Olympian Kayla Sanchez swam the opening leg of Saturday’s event, held at a spectator-free Tokyo Aquatic Centre. Sanchez was followed by Maggie Mac Neil and Rebecca Smith. Those three kept the medal pursuit alive, even if the favoured Australians were sprinting away to a runaway gold.
And then it was Oleksiak – the four-time medallist from 2016 – who brought it home, sending an early indication that she’s returned to top form by doing what she does best. The 21-year-old once again showed her pure racing prowess, a trait that earned her gold in the 100-metre freestyle event at Rio.
“If you are going to want someone racing the 100 free or anchoring your relay, you probably want it to be Penny,” Sanchez said in an interview prior to the Games. “She knows how to finish those last 50 metres. She knows how to do anything in her power to touch that wall first.”
Favoured Australia took gold, as expected and set a world record in the process while U.S. with Simone Manuel anchoring took bronze.
Gunning for Canada’s first medal of the Games, the Swimming Canada braintrust juggled the lineup from the heats to the final, a strategy it has employed in the past for big event relays. Taylor Ruck, who like Oleksiak was part of the 4 x 100 bronze medal relay squad in Rio, was replaced by Mac Neil for Saturday’s final and inserted in the second spot, following leadoff swimmer Sanchez.
“I’m so proud to be part of this team,” Sanchez said. “We did what we needed to do. We’ve been saying all afternoon: ‘it’s Game 1 and Canada has so much more to go.”
It was the first Olympic medal for Sanchez, Mac Neil and Smith, who are all making their Games debut.
Despite limited racing opportunities over the past four years, the Canadians have kept their competitive drive engaged, something Oleksiak unleashed yet again on Saturday.
“Honestly, we are already one of the most dominant countries in the world in swimming and all the girls are working so hard every single day,” Oleksiak said. “I’m really excited to see these specific girls make a mark on the world again.
“Hopefully we can get a few more going.”
And in every event they have been called upon to leave the blocks.
The focus on strong relay teams is a huge part of the Canadian program under head coach John Atkinson. With an emphasis on depth, Canadian women showed their strength in that area at the 2016 Rio Olympics where they captured a pair of medals.
The emphasis for most swimmers such as freestyle ace Oleksiak, backstroker Kylie Masse and butterfly speedster Mac Neil is their individual events. But Atkinson is determined to parlay that talent into relay success.
“It’s a nine-day competition in the pool,” Atkinson said. “We have selected a team that can compete in six relays and be competitive through all nine days, in individual events as well as relays.”
TOKYO (AP) — Naomi Osaka is back playing, still winning, and also talking to the media again.
The Japanese superstar who lit the Olympic cauldron defeated 52nd-ranked Zheng Saisai of China 6-1, 6-4 on Sunday in her first match in nearly two months.
Osaka hadn’t played since she withdrew from the French Open in May to take a mental health break, revealing that she has dealt with depression. She then sat out Wimbledon.
Osaka stopped to talk with reporters afterward, having said in Paris that she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before meeting with the media and that she would be skipping news conferences.
“More than anything else I’m just focused on playing tennis,” Osaka said. “The Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a kid so I feel like the break that I took was very needed. I feel definitely a little bit refreshed and I’m happy again.”
She added that she was “happy” that reporters were asking her questions, then added: “I feel a little bit out of my body right now.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my body, I just felt really nervous,” Osaka said. “I haven’t played since France so there were definitely some things that I did a bit wrong but I think I can improve in the matches that I continue playing.”
The second-ranked Osaka was sharp from the start, serving an ace down the T on the opening point of the match and and racing out to a 5-0 lead.
Wearing a bright red dress and a red visor and with her hair styled in red-and-white braids to match the colors of the Japanese flag stitched onto the left side of her chest, Osaka served six aces in all and produced 25 winners to Zheng’s 10.
Osaka’s match was originally scheduled to open the tournament on Saturday but then was pushed back a day before her starring role in Friday’s opening ceremony.
“I feel very very proud,” Osaka said, revealing that Olympic organizers asked her to handle the cauldron honors back in March.
“When I lit the flame I was super honored,” she added. “I think that’s a position that you dream about and not anyone can do it so for me when they asked me if I wanted to I was very surprised but very honored and I’m just very happy to be here and very happy to play — especially in Tokyo.”
Osaka will next face 50th-ranked Viktorija Golubic of Switzerland.
For other top players in the tennis tournament at the Tokyo Games, it wasn’t so straightforward.
Top-ranked Ash Barty was upset by 48th-ranked Spanish opponent Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-4, 6-3 and two-time defending gold medalist Andy Murray withdrew from singles because of a right quad strain.
Both still remain in the doubles competition.
Barty won with Australian partner Storm Sanders on Saturday while Murray and British partner Joe Salisbury beat the second-seeded French team of Pierre-Hughes Herbert and Nicolas Mahut.
Barty’s singles defeat came 15 days after she won Wimbledon for her second Grand Slam title.
She struggled with a whopping 55 unforced errors to Sorribes Tormo’s 13 and got in only 54% of her first serves compared to her opponent’s 83%.
Murray pulled out shortly ahead of his scheduled opener against ninth-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada on Center Court.
“I am really disappointed at having to withdraw but the medical staff have advised me against playing in both events, so I have made the difficult decision to withdraw from the singles and focus on playing doubles with Joe,” Murray said.
It’s the latest setback for the 34-year-old Murray after only recently returning to the tour from a three-month absence because of a groin problem. He has also had serious issues with a bad hip that wound up requiring two operations.
Murray has a total of three Olympic medals. He also won a silver in mixed doubles at the 2012 London Games with Laura Robson.
Max Purcell of Australia was to play Auger-Aliassime instead.
Heat and humidity were issues again with the temperature rising to 91 degrees F (33 degrees C) and the sun baking the hard courts at Ariake Tennis Park.
Also advancing was Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, who beat Alize Cornet of France 6-1, 6-3, while third-seeded Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus eliminated Magda Linette of Poland 6-2, 6-1.
Carla Suarez Navarro, the Spaniard who plans to retire this year, beat Ons Jabeur of Tunisia 6-4, 6-1 for her first victory since recovering from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Camila Giorgi of Italy eliminated Jennifer Brady, the American who was this year’s Australian Open finalist, 6-3, 6-2.
Among the men advancing were fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev of Germany, seventh-seeded Hubert Hurkacz of Poland and 12th-seeded Karen Khachanov of ROC.
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