Finland and Czech Republic took each other on in their final games of the preliminary round, in a game which would decide which of the two squads would take on the United States in the quarterfinals, and which would take on the Canadians. The winner of the final Group B match of the preliminary round would take on the Canadians, while the loser would be matched up against the US.
Finland had been led by some of its youngest stars in recent World Juniors memory, with 2016 draft-eligibles Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine combining for 17 points in only 3 games, including a remarkable 10 points in 3 games for Puljujarvi. The host’s roster also featured a draft-eligible defenseman, Oli Juolevi, tallying 4 assists in 3 games and impressing despite the shadow of Puljujarvi and Laine. In nets, Finland had switched between Veini Vehvilainen and Kaapo Kahkonen, both talented players out of Liiga; for their final game against the Czech Republic, Vehvilainen would earn the start.
Czech Republic’s goaltending had been headed up all tournament by Washington Capitals draft pick Vitek Vanecek, who was having a quietly impressive tournament with one shutout and a .922 save percentage in the Czech’s first three games. Their top defensive pairing was Dominik Masin and David Sklenicka, who combined for only a single point in their first three games, but helped to keep their opponents to only five goals in those three games as well.
On forward, the Czechs were supported by a broad array of forwards, with four different forwards having at least two points in three games: Dominik Lakatos, David Pastrnak, Jiri Smejkal, and Michael Spacek (the only Czech to have three points). Also returning to the Czech lineup against Finland was 2015 first round draft pick Pavel Zacha, who missed the previous two games with an injury after failing to score in his 2016 debut. These top five Czech forwards would hope to make an impact against a Finnish side that had gone from dangerously low-scoring to dangerously high-scoring since the 2015 World Juniors.
The game came out to a quick start, with both sides getting some solid scoring chances. David Sklenicka got Czech Republic’s best chance of the early first period, skating into the high slot before firing a shot on goaltender Veini Vehvilainen. On the other end of the ice, obvious goal candidates Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho combined for two good chances, both stopped by Vitek Vanecek; Roope Hintz also managed a great chance to score after a net-front scramble, but was stonewalled by Vanecek.
The Finns would be skating with only five defenseman against the Czechs, as both Miro Keskitalo and Eetu Sopanen were held out of the game by Finnish trainers due to injury. Sopanen was injured in Finland’s previous game against Slovakia after falling awkwardly on one of his leg during contact with an opposing Slovakian player. Finland’s lack of defenseman became clear late in the first period, where some of the remaining Finnish defenseman like Vili Saarijarvi and Sami Niku looked absolutely exhausted.
Perhaps there was a reason Saarijarvi looked tired towards the end of the first period, however, as he wouldn’t come out of the locker room for the beginning of the second period, leaving Finland with only four defenseman. This serious deficit in defensive strength would be poised to put the Finns on their heels early, as Czech star David Pastrnak blew past the Finns for a breakaway on net, only to have his chance stifled by goaltender Veini Vehvilainen. Going the other way, Sebastian Aho would nearly lose the puck in the offensive zone, but would manage to get the puck over to Jesse Puljujarvi, who fired it short side past Vitek Vanecek for his 11th point in 4 games, giving the Finns the first lead of the game.
The breakaway by Pastrnak, despite how Finland turned it around, was an indication of things to come in the second period. Minutes after Puljujarvi gave Finland the lead, the Czechs would hem Finland in the zone, controlling possession against a line of four forwards and one defenseman. The Czech top line, featuring Michael Spacek, Jiri Smejkal, and David Pastrnak would possess the puck very well, eventually getting the puck to Smejkal in the high slot, who would fire it past Veini Vehvilainen’s glove to tie the game up.
Only minutes later, the gap in Finnish defense would be shown again. A misplay by Miska Siikonen, a forward playing defense for the Finns, would give the chance for Czech forward Jan Ordos to score the go-ahead goal for the Czechs. Ordos would not fail, being left alone in front of the Finnish net and giving the Czechs their first lead of the game, 2-1.
Halfway through the second period, the Finns began putting offensive pressure back on the Czech Republic. A miscommunication by the Czech defense allowed Roope Hintz to steal the puck in the offensive zone, walk in alone on Vitek Vanecek, and slide the puck five-hole on the Capitals prospect to once again tie the game up. It’d be Hintz’s second goal and third point of the tournament, playing on a line with Mikko Rantanen and Antti Kalapudas.
Minutes later, the first penalty of the game was called on Filip Hronek of the Czechs, after he got into a scrum with Finnish forward and Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen. Only seconds into the powerplay, the same Kapanen zipped a pass east-west across the Czech zone to third line forward Antti Kalapudas, who finished the play for his first goal and first point of the tournament. The goal gave Finland a 3-2 lead, and put their powerplay at a tournament-best 7-for-13 (53.8%).
With only 30 seconds remaining in the second, the Czechs gained entry to the Finnish zone during a 4-on-4. Dominik Masin controlled the puck on the boards of the offensive zone before passing back to defenseman David Sklenicka, who was left completely alone by the Finnish defense and walked into the high slot to score on goaltender Veini Vehvilainen. The goal once again highlighted the gaps in the Finnish lineup, and reset the game at a 3-3 tie going into the third and final frame.
The beginning of the third period was dominated by the Czech Republic. Whether due to the lack of Finnish defensemen, or the dominance of NHL-level forward David Pastrnak, the Czechs were all over the Finns early. Nine minutes into the final frame, Pastrnak broke into the Finnish zone and fed a beautiful pass across to Michael Spacek, who was at the top of the Finnish circles. Spacek would not have trouble finishing the perfect saucer, as he slapped a one-timer past the shoulder of Veini Vehvilainen to give the Czechs a 4-3 lead with 11 minutes remaining.
Only a minute later, however, the Finns went on yet another powerplay; owners of the best powerplay percentage in the tournament, it was a dangerous spot for the Czechs to put themselves in. The Finns wouldn’t miss, either; a beautiful slap pass by Olli Juolevi eventually landed on the stick of Jesse Puljujarvi right in front of goaltender Vitek Vanecek. The tournament’s leading scorer wasn’t going to miss a chance to tie up his team’s final preliminary round game, and Puljujarvi’s second goal of the game would even the score at 4.
The dangerous Finnish powerplay still wasn’t done, either. With six minutes remaining in the final frame, the Finns would take the lead once again, with Patrik Laine finally scoring his first goal of the game on yet another powerplay. The goal cemented Finland’s place as the far-and-beyond powerplay champions of the preliminary round, setting their powerplay at 3-of-4 against the Czechs and 9-of-16 against all four opponents combined.
The Czechs pulled their goalie with only 90 seconds remaining in the game, but despite their best efforts, they couldn’t get enough offensive zone pressure to have a good chance on the Finnish goal. Even after a Kasperi Kapanen penalty gave the Czechs a 6-on-4 advantage with a faceoff in the Finnish zone, the Czechs could not manage a shot on net with seconds remaining, and the Finns held onto their 5-4 lead to win the game.
The win clinched a quarterfinal match-up against Canada for Finland, while the Czech Republic will be forced to take on the intimidating Americans, featuring top draft eligible prospect Auston Matthews, and talented goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic.