It’s time to make some new history. The Finns hammered Switzerland 6-1 in Friday’s second semi-final in Vancouver, setting up the first World Junior gold medal game ever between the U.S. and Finland.
The Finns scored four first-period goals to chase Swiss starter Luca Hollenstein from the net. Hollenstein was dazzling in the 2-0 quarter-final upset over Sweden with 41 saves, but he couldn’t stop Finland’s big guns, who staged their biggest offensive explosion of the 2019 World Juniors.
“We played really well today as a whole team,” said Finnish goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who had an easy night with 16 saves. “I think for the team, four fast goals helps a lot because we’ve been struggling a little bit with scoring.”
Finnish captain Aarne Talvitie scored twice, and Aleksi Heponiemi had a goal and three assists, while Rasmus Kupari chipped in a goal and two helpers. Jesse Ylonen and Henri Jokiharju added singles. It was a stellar two-way effort under coach Jussi Ahokas.
“This tournament is all about winning the right games,” said Ahokas. “I think we’re in a good way right now to play our best game tomorrow.”
Like the U.S., Finland is seeking its fifth World Junior gold medal of all time. The Finns triumphed in 1987 and 1998, and are currently enjoying their best U20 decade ever with gold medals in 2014 and 2016. The Americans previously won gold in 2004, 2010, 2013, and 2017.
Saturday’s gold medal matchup is no surprise in terms of national talent pools. The U.S.-Finland rivalry has been building for years at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. The U.S. beat Finland for gold in the 2015 and 2017 finals, while Finland knocked off the Americans in the 2016 semi-final and 2018 gold medal game.
“We definitely know how they play,” said Heponiemi, now tied with four other players for the tournament points lead (eight). “We know they’re a good team and we’re going to have to work really hard to get the win tomorrow. We’ve got to be aggressive and go at them.”
On New Year’s Eve, the U.S. topped Finland 4-1 in Victoria. This will be an exciting rematch.
Losing to Finland was a tough way for Swiss coach Christian Wohlwend to celebrate his 42nd birthday, but his boys still have an historic opportunity to end a 21-year medal drought. At the 1998 World Juniors, the Swiss, coached by Bill Gilligan and backstopped by all-star goalie David Aebischer, beat the Czechs 4-3 in the bronze medal game. Sandro Rizzi got the game-deciding shootout goal. The closest the Swiss have come since then is fourth place (2002, 2010).
So there is a lot on the line in Saturday’s bronze medal game versus Russia.
“The problem is when Russia plays 80 per cent and we play like today, then Russia can play 50 per cent and they will take us apart,” Wohlwend said. “We have to play 120 per cent and then maybe we have a chance. That’s the huge difference between us and other top nations.”
The Finns attacked like a speed metal band performing a tribute to race car legend Mika Hakkinen. Santeri Virtanen circled behind the Swiss net and fed a short pass to Ylonen, who beat Hollenstein far side with a one-timer from the right faceoff dot at 0:40.
At 2:55, it was 2-0 as Talvitie, Finland’s scoring leader, stretched his point streak to six games. On the rush, he surprised the Swiss goalie with a high stick-side zinger through a crowd.
“We had a couple of good goals from the beginning,” Talvitie said. “It gave us some room to breathe. As the game went on, we played really well. We were composed and we took care of the pucks.”
At 5:56, Hollenstein foiled Kupari cutting to the net, but Talvitie followed up on the rebound and put the puck in off the back bar. The play was video-reviewed for confirmation.
“They’re really fast,” said Switzerland’s Tim Berni. “They have good forwards with good outside speed, and obviously we had some troubles handling that. We have to skate harder. But the Finns played really good today.”
On Finland’s first power play, Jokiharju made it 4-0 at 7:43 with a screened centre point shot. Wohlwend mercifully replaced Hollenstein, whose superb statistics had taken a beating, with Akira Schmid.
The Swiss didn’t stop trying. Kurashev grabbed a loose puck in a net-front scramble and scored his tournament-leading sixth goal to spoil Luukkonen’s shutout bid at 16:40. “Let’s go, Switzerland!” resounded from the Rogers Arena stands, but while it was a nice thought, no comeback was brewing.
In the second period, Schmid stopped Eeli Tolvanen’s close-in attempt when he swooped in off right wing, but couldn’t prevent Heponiemi from converting the rebound at 7:56.
Subsequently, the Finns enjoyed an extended 5-on-3 power play. Swiss defenceman Gianluca Burger had just gotten out of the box to make it a 5-on-4 when Kaapo Kakko deftly backhanded the puck cross-crease for Kupari to round out the scoring at 6-1 at 14:57.
The third period simply delayed the inevitable Finnish victory, as the blue-and-white team focused on solid defence.
Asked how Finland needs to play to beat the Americans in the final, Tolvanen said: “Just like we did today and against Canada. I think we just need to be ready to battle. Probably get a few big hits at the start and just try to get under their skin.”
If you’re a Swiss fan who believes in omens, there are some positive signs heading into the bronze medal game. As in 1998, there’s a David Aebischer on the roster, although the defenceman is no relation to the former NHL goalie. The Swiss also defeated Sweden in the quarter-final and lost to Finland in the semi-final that year. So the Russians might want to watch out on Saturday.
“It’s another big chance for our country, for every individual player, for the whole staff to win a medal at this World Junior Championship,” Wohlwend said. “It’ll be very nice for everybody if we can finish this tournament with a medal. I think we’ve played a fantastic tournament.”
Speaking of Finland’s gold-medal history again, Rasmus Ristolainen got the dramatic OT winner against host Sweden in Malmo in 2014, and Kasperi Kapanen earned immortality with his sudden-death wraparound goal versus Russia in Helsinki in 2016. Will someone new step up as Finland’s hero in the 2019 final? Stay tuned.