In the third game of opening day, 2016 World Juniors host Finland took on the recently promoted Belarusians in the second Group B game of the day. The tournament’s first game took place just hours beforehand, as Group B opponents Russia and Czech Republic needed 65 minutes and a shootout to crown a winner, with Russia taking home two of the three available points. A regulation win for either Finland or Belarus in this game would give them three points and the top spot in the group; at least, for now.
Finland’s top line of Roope Hintz, Mikko Rantanen, and Kasperi Kapanen looked to come out to a strong start against Belarus, backed up by a strong second line: Sebastian Aho at center, with 2016 draft eligibles Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine on his wings. Both Puljujarvi and Laine are projected to go in the top ten at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in June.
Finland’s defensive core is notably less strong than their forward group, but could still be a formidable back-end in comparison to Group B teams like Russia and the Czechs. Their top four consist of Flint Firebirds’ defenseman and Red Wings prospect Vili Saarijarvi, Olli Juolevi of the London Knights, TPS Turku blueliner Miro Keskitalo, and Blackhawks’ draft pick Joni Tuulola. In nets, Finland brags a one-two punch of Veini Vehvilainen and Kaapo Kahkonen, the top two U20 goaltenders in Finland’s Liiga. Vehvilainen, Finland’s starter, sits second among all Liiga goaltenders in save percentages, stopping 93.8% of shots with JYP Jyvaskyla.
The Belarusian side, as a whole, have far less to brag about. Although their lineup features 6-foot-9 OHL defenseman Stepan Falkovsky and KHL rookie Dmitri Buinitsky of Dynamo Minsk, the rest of the team is a who’s who of ‘who?’ Of the other 21 players on the roster, only five play in leagues outside of Belarus; four of these five are in the Russian juniors, and one, third liner Vadim Malinovsky, plays for Okanagan HC Europe in the American USPHL. Going into the first top tier Juniors tournament since 2012, Belarus will be fighting relegation the entire way; they barely stand a chance against more established teams like Finland and Russia.
Belarus came out to the attack early in the game, gaining some sustained pressure within the first minute. However, the speed of the Finnish forwards quickly turned the game around, as Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen had the first Finnish chance of the game on a quick rush past a Belarusian defender, but couldn’t sneak the puck by Belarusian goaltender Ivan Kulbakov.
The Finns got into penalty trouble early in the first period, with two consecutive penalties giving Belarus four minutes of 5-on-4 play. Belarus struggled to maintain zone pressure on the powerplay, though, barely breaching the Finnish zone on either man advantage. The Finnish penalty kill easily killed off both penalties, dumping the puck back into the Belarusian zone approximately 70,000 times.
Continuing the game at even strength, Finland’s speed and skill had the Belarusian defense outmatched. Finland vastly out-chanced Belarus throughout the period, highlighted by one particular rush in which a Roope Hintz shot resulted in an almost-certain goal for Mikko Rantanen, saved only by the sprawling body of goaltender Ivan Kulbakov.
Despite the tied score, the Finns held the momentum going into the second period, leading the shot count 14 to 2. Early in the second period, Belarusian defenseman Alexander Tabolin laid a potentially dangerous hit on Finnish defenseman Joni Tuulola, contacting the head and drawing a minor penalty and a ten-minute misconduct.
Not able to tally a goal on the powerplay, Finland continued their even strength offensive pressure. On one play, Saarijarvi fired a pass through the Belarusian defenseman to forward Julius Nattinen, whose shot was only barely saved by the blocker of Ivan Kulbakov. Not only did the Belarus goaltender stop more than his fair share of shots in the second period, but the Belarusian skaters got in on the act as well, diving in front of multiple Finnish shots on net to keep the game at a 0-0 tie.
Throughout the rest of the second period, the same patterns emerged. Finland rushed the puck up well, getting a chance on net, however good or bad the chance was. Belarus would respond by attempting to carry the puck into the Finnish zone, but then losing it. This continued until Finland was able to break the pattern, as Jesse Puljujarvi received a breakaway pass and snuck the puck past Kulbakov, giving Finland the 1-0 lead as the period ended.
At the beginning of the third, Puljujarvi was back at it again. Possessing the puck in the offensive zone, Puljujarvi threaded a perfect pass across the ice to Patrik Laine, who snapped a one-timer past Ivan Kulbakov. It was a beautiful play which summed up the fantastic offensive abilities of both 2016 draft eligible players. Later in the period, Puljujarvi continued his offensive dominance, receiving a drop pass from Sebastian Aho and ripping a shot on Kulbakov. However, cementing his place as Belarus’ Player of the Game, Kulbakov made another fantastic save with his glove.
However, Kulbakov’s brilliance did not happen to include the ability to see through human bodies. This glaring deficit in X-Ray vision, combined with the shooting abilities of Finnish forward Sami Niku, made Kulbakov unable to stop a shot in which his own defensemen screened him completely, allowing the Finns to go up 3-0 on Niku’s shot.
Minutes later, on a powerplay opportunity, Puljujarvi scored his second of the night on the rebound after the initial Olli Juolevi shot nearly trickled by Kulbakov. After Finland went up 4-0, Belarus switched Kulbakov for their back-up goaltender Vladislav Verbitski, who would play the remaining twelve minutes of the game.
With seven minutes remaining in the game, fourth line Finnish forward Sebastian Repo controlled the puck in the offensive zone, putting it on net before finishing off his own rebound to give Finland a 5-0 lead over Belarus. By this point, Finland had nearly as many goals as Belarus had shots. Minutes later, driving to the net with the puck, Dmitri Buinitski drew a tripping penalty and put Belarus on the powerplay. Although any powerplay goal wouldn’t have made much difference to the final score in this game, the IIHF’s tiebreaker, which is based on goals for and against, had Belarus looking to pad their team statistics as much as possible before the end of the game.
However, they were unable to convert on the powerplay, once against struggling to maintain consistent offensive zone pressure, even at 5-on-4. In the final three minutes of the game, they managed one more solid chance on net, but could not get the puck past goaltender Velhi Vehvilainen, who pitched the first shutout of this year’s tournament. With seconds remaining, Mikko Rantanen cemented the Finnish win, scoring a shorthanded empty net goal to give Finland the 6-0 victory.
In the end, Finland clinched a predictable but still impressive 6-0 win over their Belarusian opponents. Finland plays their next game against their strongest opponents, Russia, on December 28th. Belarus takes on Slovakia on the 27th, looking to take advantage of a team that most perceive as Belarus’ best chance to win a game in Group B play.