Team Canada won the 2023-24 Rivalry Series with a 6-1 win over Team USA on Sunday afternoon.
Just like last year, Canada dropped the first three games of the seven-game series to the Americans. And for the second year in a row, Canada completed the reverse sweep with four straight wins starting with a 3-2 victory on Dec. 16.
Natalie Spooner and Emma Maltais — teammates on PWHL Toronto — scored two goals each. Marie-Philip Poulin (Montreal) and Ashton Bell (Ottawa) also scored for Canada. Grace Zumwinkle (Minnesota) scored the lone goal for the U.S.
Players for both national teams will return to their PWHL clubs and games will begin again on Wednesday night. Sunday’s Game 7 was the last game between Canada and the U.S. until the two rivals face off at the 2024 women’s world championships, which will begin April 3 in Utica, N.Y.
Natalie Spooner’s Return
Spooner returned to the national team for the final leg of the Rivalry Series after a strong start to the PWHL season.
She took some time off after the 2023 world championships in April — which she played in four months postpartum — and didn’t start skating for the PWHL season until October. Since coming back, Spooner has been Toronto’s best player and is sitting first in the league in goals (7).
She’s back to playing a dominant power-forward game with a strong net-front presence. In the final three games of the Rivalry Series, Spooner scored three goals and six points to lead Canada to the series win. Spooner finished the seven-game series tied for the lead in goals and points despite playing less than half the games.
Spooner added her name to the Canadian history books in Wednesday’s 3-0 win over the U.S., scoring the 500th National Women’s Team goal against the United States.
In the final three games of the series, Canada’s goaltending was a major X-factor.
On Wednesday (Game 5), Ann-Renée Desbiens stopped 14 of 16 shots against. Emerance Maschmeyer followed that up with a stellar shutout in Game 6 (27 saves). Then, on Sunday, Desbiens only allowed one goal on 25 shots. That’s only three goals against on 68 shots over three critical games.
Behold! A high-quality butt save by Ann-Renée Desbiens. There is surely another way to describe this stop, but we all know what it is. Butt save.
Great awareness by Desbiens here, who knows what she needs to do even with her back to the puck. Goalies are unreal. pic.twitter.com/qA2drbmkp0
— Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) February 11, 2024
On the U.S. side, Aerin Frankel was just OK in Game 6 with three goals against on 22 shots while Nicole Hensley allowed three goals on 27 shots in Game 5.
The deciding game on Sunday was quite a letdown for the U.S. goalies. Hensley was pulled midway through the game after allowing three goals on 12 shots. Then, Abbey Levy allowed three goals on nine shots the rest of the way. When Emma Maltais scored the sixth goal of the game, it was on the 17th shot for Canada.
Hensley has been excellent for PWHL Minnesota and Frankel was a star at the 2023 world championships, leading the U.S. to a gold medal, so there’s no real need to panic. But Canada’s top two goalies, particularly Desbiens in big games, continue to impress.
What does this mean for 2024 world championships?
As fun as the Rivalry Series is … the end result doesn’t mean much when it comes to the world championships.
Team Canada is still the No. 1 team in the IIHF rankings with a slight edge over Team USA, while the Americans are the reigning world champions.
It’s important to keep in mind that in three of the final four games — and losses for Team USA — the top college players for both teams were not available. This impacts Canada, to be sure, as Sarah Fillier (Princeton) is one of the best players in the world. But the Americans lose a lot in terms of both quality and quantity.
Caroline Harvey (Wisconsin) is arguably the most talented defender in the world right now. Cayla Barnes (Ohio State) also plays top minutes on the U.S. blue line. Abbey Murphy (University of Minnesota) was fourth in Rivalry Series scoring when she was available and playing a top-line role with Taylor Heise and Hilary Knight. Then there’s Tessa Janecke (Penn State), Hannah Bilka (Ohio State), Kirsten Simms (Wisconsin), Britta Curl (Wisconsin) and Laila Edwards (Wisconsin), who all featured in the U.S. forward group.
With its top young players in the lineup in November and December, Team USA led the series 3-1 and looked dominant in the first two games in Arizona and Los Angeles. Those young players will be available and critical to Team USA’s success at worlds.
(Photo of Canada celebrating after their win: Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)