France will complete the top division that will be extended to ten teams for next year’s event in Finland.
The French finished their five-game round robin campaign with four wins and a loss, including today’s impressive 7-1 win over Slovakia ahead of Austria and Hungary, teams they had beaten before.
“We knew every game would be a challenge, but we were here at home playing in front of family and friends, so we felt we had to win,” said winning goalie Caroline Baldin. “Today, we played well again. We have a lot of solidarity among us, which was the difference. We fought hard every game.”
Although France has participated in the IIHF’s women’s program since 1999, this is the first time the nation will be in the top pool. The team’s only loss was a 2-1 decision to Norway last Monday.
“I think the thing we look forward to next year the most is playing against the top teams,” Baldin continued. “We’ll be able to see if the gap between us and the top teams is small or not. We hope to fight against every team.”
Although France has only a small number of women’s players, the advantage is that they are a dedicated group – to the game, and to each other.
“Many of us have played together for seven or eight years,” Baldin explained, “so we know each other really well. We grew up together and have known each other since we were 12. This year we were a bit lucky and came together. But even though we’ve been together a long time, we’re still a young team. I think our average age is about 23.”
Slovakia finished in last place with one win, but because the top pool is expanding from eight to ten teams it won’t be relegated.
In truth, tonight’s result didn’t mean much for France as it had advanced earlier in the day after Austria beat Norway and Hungary beating Denmark, both by 3-0 scores. Before Day 5, Norway had been the only team to beat France and could have caused a tie for first place at nine points with France and other teams if they had won in regulation time and if France had lost in regulation time. Neither happened.
France sealed its victory tonight thanks to three goals in a span of 4:20 early in the period. Chloe Aurard opened the scoring with a low shot that fooled Romana Kiapesova at 3:37.
A minute and a half later, Clara Rozier went end-to-end and finished with a pretty wrist shot to the far side to make it 2-0, and Margot Desvignes made it 3-0 on another chance from in close.
Slovakia’s coach, Jenny Potter, long-time star with Team USA, changed goalies, but that move couldn’t help the team’s offensive struggle. Late in the period the Slovaks had a two-man advantage for 52 seconds but didn’t generate any great scoring chances with the opportunity.
Aurard got her second midway through the middle period to give France even more breathing room but just a few minutes later Nikola Rumanova got Slovakia on the board.
Soon after, the team had a great opportunity to make a game of it when Lea Villiot was given a major and game misconduct penalty for hitting from behind, but Slovakia gave up a goal with the lengthy advantage, more or less sealing its fate.
For Baldin, the win caps a memorable season which saw her backstop the ZSC Lions Zurich to the women’s championship in Switzerland.
“I’ve made a lot of good friends with my club team in Zurich,” she enthused. “They’re like family to me. Even though they might play for Team Switzerland, that doesn’t matter. For the moment, this win today is the biggest win of my life. But last year at the Olympic qualification, we came close to beating Germany, and really close to beating Japan, so tonight it was amazing to finally win.”
Austria, after opening the tournament with a loss, improved to a silver-medal finish while Hungary won the bronze. Norway’s Ena Nystrom was named best goaltender by the tournament directorate while Gwendoline Gendarme of France was voted best defender and Fanni Gasparics, who led the tournament in scoring (6+4), won the award as best forward.
The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship will include the United States, Canada, host Finland, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Japan and France. The host city and the dates will be announced soon. Next year’s Division I Group A will include Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, Slovakia and Italy, which earned promotion tonight.