Canadian women's hockey crease not set in stone

Asked how it feels to be seeded No. 2 behind established starter Shannon Szabados, Geneviève Lacasse doesn’t bat an eye.

“There is no established starting goaltender,” the 28-year-old from Kingston, Ont., insisted at a media event in Calgary over the summer. “There really isn’t. I feel excited. I am pumped for this year.”

And there you have it. Just because Szabados backstopped the Canadian women’s hockey team to a gold medal four years ago in Sochi, Russia, doesn’t mean she is the automatic starter for the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea.

In fact, any of Canada’s three goalies could end up the starter in Pyeongchang. While Szabados is unquestionably the leading candidate, she still needs to beat out Lacasse and Ann-Renée Desbiens as the team begins a six-game slate of exhibitions against the rival Americans on Sunday in Quebec City (they’ll meet again three days later in Boston).

It was the same four years ago, when there was no guarantee veterans Charline Labonté or Kim St-Pierre would be the starter and Szbados’s spectacular play leading up to the Sochi Games enabled her to win the job.

“We have three great goaltenders,” said Team Canada coach Laura Schuler. “Each of them has their own unique strengths, and I think the best thing when we look at them is how much depth we have in net. We can rely on any one of them.

“Lacasse has already been in games against the United States and has won them, as has Shannon. Desbiens is an up-and-coming goaltender who has won the Patty Kazmaier Award as the best player in NCAA women’s hockey.”

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Genevieve Lacasse is “pumped” to compete with her fellow Canadian goalies. (Abelimages/Getty Images)

Movin’ on up

Szabados isn’t taking anything for granted. She recalled her first Olympics, in Vancouver in 2010, where reporters asked how it felt to be the No. 3 goalie for Canada.

“I remember thinking, I hope I play well enough to be the No. 1 goalie,” Szabados said. “I never thought I would settle for being the third-stringer, even though I was the youngest goalie.”

Szabados wound up playing three games in Vancouver. She recorded two shutouts, including a 28-save performance against the U.S. in the gold-medal game, and had a sparkling 0.33 goals-against average. In Sochi she was 3-0 with one shutout and a 0.96 GAA, stopping 27 shots in Canada’s 3-2 overtime win over the Americans in the final.

“It’s the same now,” she said. “I’m sitting in a different spot, but I know the other two goalies are fully capable of being the No. 1 goalie as well so it doesn’t really change my preparation or work ethic.

“If anything, it makes me work harder.”

Like many members of Team Canada, Szabados played with and against male players in her youth, including in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, but she took things a step further by playing men’s professional hockey in the Southern Pro Hockey League as well as in the Central Hockey League. She believes playing against men gives her an edge.

“On the ice, just by nature, guys are built a little bit bigger and stronger so I have had to make adjustments in my game,” Szabados, 29, said.

In fact, while others on Team Canada may benefit from playing against boys’ midget triple-A teams in the lead up to the Olympic Games, that’s actually a step backwards for Szabados.

“I played in that actual league when I was 15,” she said with a laugh. “That said, it is good for us as a team. It’s awesome because we play in the league and the games count for points. Not only do the guys have their pride on the line, they also have two points on the line.”

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A standout with her U.S. college team, Ann-Renee Desbiens is hoping to make the leap to international starter. (Claudio Bresciani/AP Photo/TT/Canadian Press)

‘My goal is to push her’

Lacasse was part of the 2014 Olympic team along with Szabados and Labonte, but she didn’t see any action in Sochi, though she feels she benefitted hugely from being at the Games.

“Not getting to play was tough,” Lacasse said. “That’s what the coaches thought was best and, hey, in the end they were right because we won the gold medal.”

Lacasse, who was a finalist for the goaltender of the year award with Calgary of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League last season, is not deterred by the competition she faces to win the starter’s job.

“If you look back to 2010 when Shannon took the job from Charlie and Kim, it was the same thing,” Lacasse said. “She came in, played well, proved herself and got the job. It’s in my hands to do everything I can to put myself in a position where the coach will have to choose me.”

Desbiens is coming of a marvelous fourth season at the University of Wisconsin, where she became just the third goaltender to win the Kazmaier Award and was named a First Team All-American.

“I think at this stage I’m just trying to be better today than I was yesterday,” said the 23-year-old who hails from La Malbaie, Que. “Shannon is definitely an amazing goaltender with a fabulous background, but my goal is to push her as much as I can to make her better, but also to make the team better.”

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