SOCHI, Russia — Noora Raty has heard the many predictions that the women's Sochi Olympic hockey tournament will be a two-team contest between the U.S. and Canada because no other teams have the skill and depth to challenge them.
Raty politely disagrees. And Finland's stellar goaltender has proved she has the ability to tilt the balance of power away from the two teams that have monopolized the gold medals at all four previous women's Olympic tournaments.
Raty, who won two NCAA championships at the University of Minnesota and played alongside several current members of Team USA, made 58 saves in a 3-1 upset of the Americans in the Four Nations Cup at Lake Placid, N.Y., in November. It was a performance both teams recalled Friday, in advance of their Olympic opener Saturday at Shayba Arena.
"Noora stood on her head," said U.S. forward Megan Bozek, who roomed with Raty and Finland Olympic defenseman Mira Jalosuo as a freshman.
"It's tough to beat a goaltender when she's on her game, so I think we just need to get a lot of shots and score on her early."
That didn't quite happen in their matchup at Lake Placid.
"I just remember I was extremely lucky but I guess I earned my luck," said Raty, who works at the MEGA goaltending school in Minneapolis when she's not playing for Finland's national team.
"At one point I was kind of laughing, 'How am I making all these saves?' It was one of those games. You just get in the zone and ntohing goes by you. I hope the same thing is going to happen [Saturday] because that's going to be needed."
Goaltending can be the great equalizer between teams that are on vastly different talent levels. That has been true for Team Finland, a bronze medalist in 1998 and 2010. The women don't have the resources and sponsorship their U.S. counterparts can draw upon, so the team's improvement has been slow.
But Coach Mika Pieniniemi does see progress beyond the excellence of Raty, a three-time Olympian.
"For sure Noora is a big player for us. And that's one of our strengths, the goalie," he said. "But nowadays I think that we have also three equal units [among their forwards]. Before, two or three years ago, the U.S. was physical and hit much more. Now we have made that difference shorter."
Raty, who also led Finland to a victory over the U.S. at the 2008 World Championships, is capable of narrowing that gap even more.
"Goaltending is a big part of hockey and it's the same thing for all the goalies here. You don't play well, your team won't win anything," she said. "A lot of people have tried to put pressure on me, but no one can put pressure on me but myself. I'm going to go out there and have fun."