Finland and Slovakia met on Day 5 of the 2016 World Juniors, each ready to play their third games of the tournament’s preliminary round robin play. Before the game, both teams held the same record, each recording a single win and a single loss. Finland dropped their only loss to the Group B leading Russian side, while the Slovaks lost to Group B’s second placed squad, the Czech Republic.
Finland’s scoring has been bolstered throughout the tournament by their top line of Patrik Laine, Sebastian Aho, and Jesse Puljujarvi. Before taking on the Slovaks, they had five goals and nine assists in only two games; enough for TSN to deem their performance the beginning of a ‘new era in Finnish hockey’. Both Puljujarvi and Laine are likely to go in the top five selections at the upcoming 2016 NHL Entry Draft; their teammate, Oli Juolevi, a defenseman with the London Knights of the OHL, is also likely to go in the draft’s first round.
After a second period collapse against the Russians in their second game, the Finns elected to switch goaltenders, putting Veini Vehvilainen on the bench against Slovakia and giving Liiga goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen his first start of the tournament. Adam Huska remains in the net for Slovakia, after allowing only two goals each to both Belarus and the Czech Republic in his first two tournament starts.
Most of Slovakia’s roster comes from the same, HK Orange, a Slovakian squad filled with some of the most talented youth players in that country. In fact, thirteen of the twenty-three players on the Slovakian roster are members of HK Orange, including two of their first line forwards, Matej Palocko and Matus Sukel. While some saw Slovakia as the underdog in their match against the host Finns, this level of chemistry between so many Slovakian players held the potential to flip those predictions on their heads.
Minutes into the game, Finnish defenseman Eetu Sopanen was injured on the blue line of his own zone. During a puck battle, Sopanen’s leg got caught up while he was falling, and after falling, he immediately began to point at his left knee. Once the whistle went, he was promptly escorted off the ice. As Finland’s seventh defenseman, the loss of Sopanen was a loss of defensive depth for the Finns, and would force the other six defenseman to play some heavier minutes for the remainder of the game.
Later in the first, Finnish forward Antti Kalapudas took a boarding penalty on a bad hit to a Slovak forward. On the ensuing powerplay, a mad scramble in front of the Finnish net led to Slovakian forward Matus Sukel firing a puck past Kaapo Kahkonen to give Slovakia a 1-0 lead. The powerplay goal was the first of Slovakia’s tournament, bumping their powerplay conversation rate to 1-for-8 (12.5%); Finland’s penalty kill continued to struggle, dropping to 5-for-9 (55.6%).
Minutes later, a shot by Slovakian defenseman Ladislav Romancik after a face-off in the Finnish zone banked off the leg of Radovan Bondra, off the net camera, and back out of the net. It was originally ruled a goal, and after a lengthy video review to confirm that Bondra’s leg was not in the Finnish crease, that original ruling was held, giving Slovakia the 2-0 lead with just under eight minutes remaining in the first period.
With minutes remaining in the first period, a Slovakian penalty gave Finland their first powerplay of the game. Putting out their top line of Puljujarvi, Aho, and Laine, Finland quickly converted the powerplay into their first goal of the game, as Patrik Laine fired a seamless east-west pass through a huge gap in the Slovakian penalty kill to Sebastian Aho, who finished with a short-side shot past Adam Huska. The goal was Aho’s second marker and Laine’s third assist in the tournament, and cut the Slovakian lead to 2-1.
The play continued back and forth through the second period, with both sides getting their fair share of good chances on the opposing team’s goaltender. The highlight of the period came when a stray puck in the Finnish zone resulted in a point blank chance for Slovakia in front of goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen, who read the play perfectly and flashed the glove to keep Finland’s goal deficit to one.
With six minutes remaining in the second period, the Finns went to their second powerplay of the game and set up in the Slovakian zone. Halfway through their powerplay, a shot from the point caused a bad rebound to given up by Slovakian goaltender Adam Huska, and the puck was promptly banged into the net by Finnish forward Aleksi Saarela to restore the game to a tie for the first time since the game began. With only 25 minutes left to play, a whole new game had begun.
Only minutes later, Flint Firebirds defenseman Vili Saarijarvi took a wrist shot from the blue line which banked off the boards behind Adam Huska’s net and came back out in front on the other side. There to finish off the play was Finnish forward Roope Hintz, who put the puck in the back of the open net for his first goal of the 2016 tournament. The goal put the Finns ahead 3-2, their first lead of the game, as the game approached its final period.
Just seconds into the third period, Finland gained the offensive zone early with their top line dominating the possession play. A smart pass by Patrik Laine on the boards to linemate Jesse Puljujarvi allowed Puljujarvi to fire a shot on Adam Huska. Although Huska got a piece of the shot, it trickled through him and past the line to put Finland up 4 to 2 with 19 minutes still remaining in the game.
Minutes later, Finland went on their third powerplay of the game, and were looking to convert yet another man advantage into a goal. Just seconds into the powerplay, Jesse Puljujarvi made an incredibly intelligent pass in front of the Slovakian net, which bounced off both a Slovakian and Finnish player before landing on the stick of Puljujarvi’s linemate Sebastian Aho. Aho would make no mistake, scoring his second goal of the game and his third of the tournament on the backhand to put Finland up 5-2.
Slovakia would later go on yet another powerplay after an irresponsible Roope Hintz slashing penalty. The Slovakian powerplay unit would soon cut the Finnish lead to two, putting their third goal against Kaapo Kahkonen past to cut the Finnish lead to 5-3.
With eight minutes remaining in the final frame, Patrik Laine all but cemented a Finnish win with a beautiful shot from the top of the circles. The shot was helped by a faceoff win by his center Sebastian Aho, who put the puck on a tee for Laine. Laine ripped it past the shoulder of goaltender Adam Huska, who was beat for the sixth time in the game despite an overall solid performance against the hosts.
On the fourth Finnish powerplay of the game, just minutes after the Laine goal, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen put up his first goal of the tournament, getting the weight off his back with a slapshot that beat Adam Huska to give the Finns a 7-3 lead. The goal would be the last of the night against Huska, who was pulled immediately following Kapanen’s marker, and replaced with back-up goaltender Stanislav Skorvanek.
As the game winded down, defenseman Vili Saarijarvi made sure to throw a little bit more shade at the Slovakian effort. Faking out a forward on the Slovakian blueline, Saarijarvi blew a slapshot past everyone on both teams, recording the eighth Finnish goal of the game and officially catapulting the goal deficit into the stratosphere.
Defeating Slovakia 8 to 3, Finland vaulted themselves into the gold medal conversation according to TSN’s Craig Button, as the tournament remains an unpredictable and wide open event. Finland’s fourth and final preliminary round game will be played against the Czech Republic, while the Slovakians will take on Russia; both games take place tomorrow, on the final day of the 2016 World Juniors preliminary round.