International Ice Hockey Federation

Champions, but underdogs

Champions, but underdogs

Swedes to test Finland’s do-or-die mentality

Published 02.01.2015 00:53 GMT-5 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Champions, but underdogs
Sweden's Nick Sorensen with a scoring chance against Finland in last year's gold medal game. Photo: Francois Laplante / HHOF-IIHF Images
For good or bad, you can never accuse the Finnish national team of doing things the easy way.

Take the World Junior squad’s road to the gold medal last year in Malmo, Sweden.

In the quarter-finals, they had to rally from a 3-1 second-period deficit to defeat the Czech Republic 5-3. The semi-finals saw coach Karri Kivi’s boys facing the Canadians – hardly the most desirable opponent, but they came away with a 5-1 win.

And then, who would want to face a high-octane host Swedish team that had recorded six straight regulation wins heading into the gold medal game? But goalie Juuse Saros’s 35 saves and captain Teuvo Teravainen’s three-assist performance proved to be difference-makers as Suomi triumphed 3-2 in overtime.

This year, the Finns have made it hard on themselves again going into the playoff round. The defending champions have recorded one victory in four outings, and have scored just five goals under new coach Hannu Jortikka. That’s fewer than any other team at the World Juniors – with the exception of Germany (two), whom they defeated 2-0 on Wednesday in Montreal to claim the last Group A quarter-final berth.

Their "reward" is another winner-takes-all showdown with Sweden. And how about those Swedes?

Defying pre-tournament predictions that 2014 could be the year the blue-and-yellow boys take a step backwards, they’ve been the class of Group B in Toronto. Powered by the playmaking prowess of Leafs prospect William Nylander, the Swedes have tallied more goals with the man advantage (nine) than anyone else, and their penalty-killing is perfect (zero goals allowed on 12 disadvantages).

“[It’s] always my goal, to be among the scoring leaders,” said Nylander, whose seven points leave him tied for second in the overall derby behind Canada’s Sam Reinhart (eight). “It’s something that all top players want and something I strive for. If you’re producing, you’re probably playing well.”

What will it take to stop Sweden from marching to its fourth consecutive World Junior final? Finnish captain Artturi Lehkonen believes he has the answer.

“Finland, that’s for sure!” Lehkonen quipped. “I think they’re a little bit afraid of us because we won last year. They have been talking loudly in the press that they’re going to wait for us and give us a comeback. They need to know that we haven’t played the best game that we can play. And of course, it’s going to be a really important game for me because there are a lot of my teammates and a lot of players I know [on their team]. I’m not losing that game.”

Lehkonen plays for the SHL’s Frolunda Gothenburg, and he’ll be up against fellow Frolunda forwards Anton Karlsson, Anton Blidh, and Christoffer Ehn in the quarter-finals. Lehkonen has just one goal so far, while Kasperi Kapanen and Aleksi Mustonen are still looking for their first goals of the tournament. World Junior rookie Mikko Rantanen, meanwhile, has lit the red lamp three times after getting just one goal in 30 Liiga games with TPS Turku this season.

As usual, Finland’s goaltending and commitment to team defence against Sweden shouldn’t be a problem. But if the Finns don’t wake up their special teams in time, it might not matter that the Swedes have wound up riding 18-year-old goalie Linus Soderstrom in lieu of the originally projected 19-year-old starter Jonas Johansson, who has missed the tournament due to injury.

“We have to work more on the power play, keep our focus, and play [as a five-man unit],” said star Finnish blueliner Julius Honka, who certainly has the potential to counteract the offence that Sweden’s Gustav Forsling has been keying with the man advantage. “I think we’ve played the power play a little bit lazy. We have to battle. If we keep focus on those little things on the power play, we can create some chances. That’s how we score.”

If the trends hold true, Finland’s tournament will come to an early end on Friday. The champions are clearly the underdogs in this big Nordic battle. But their do-or-die mentality will serve them well here. And, maybe, just maybe, Finnish grit and perseverance will be enough to overcome the clinical skill of coach Rikard Gronborg’s Swedes once again.

“It’s a big match and a big challenge for our team,” said Husso, who has been the better of the two Finnish goalies so far, earning the shutout against Germany. “We need to win that game. We’ll practice tomorrow and on Friday we’ll have a good game.”


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