January 2, 2020
by Lucas Aykroyd, IIHF
The defending champs are still rolling. Joonas Oden scored in the third period to give Finland a 1-0 win over the U.S. and a berth in the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship semi-finals.
On the power play, Kristian Tanus, Finland’s leading scorer (2+6=8), looked off the U.S. defence before centering the puck to Oden, who hammered it home from the hash marks at 4:23.
“They were leaving the middle place open, and we went through it in the intermission that I should be more in the middle,” Oden said. “I was wide open, and Tanus gave me a good pass and I just shot it top left corner.”
The tight quarter-final in front of 4,451 fans in Trinec was a rematch of the 2019 World Junior gold medal game, and once again Finland came out on top. This ends the U.S. medal streak at four consecutive years.
In a showdown between two of the tournament’s most highly touted netminders, Finland’s Justus Annunen bested the U.S.’s Spencer Knight for his first World Junior shutout. Final shots were 30-29 for the U.S.
“We were great today,” said Annunen. “We were humble and worked hard against the USA today. We had good luck in the game.”
Finland will play either Canada in the semi on Saturday.
No nation has won consecutive World Junior titles since Canada’s last five-peat (2005-09).
The Finns previously won gold in 1987, 1998, 2014, 2016, and 2019. The U.S. won gold in 2004, 2010, 2013, and 2017.
In the 2010’s, these two nations were tied for most World Junior titles, with three golds apiece.
“It was a very tight game, back and forth,” Knight said. “I think Finland played great and we played great. That’s just how it is. These one-game series, where it’s just do or die in one game, it’s kind of tough. Just bounces and who wants it more.”
Neither team gave an inch from the get-go. The U.S.’s Jack Drury was shaken up right at the start in a collision with Tanus next to the Finnish bench. Then Alex Turcotte clipped Antti Saarela’s mouth with a high stick, taking a double minor, but the Finns were kept to the perimeter on the four-minute power play.
“I don’t think I had the best tournament by my standards,” said Turcotte, who totalled two assists. “Obviously it kind of hurts. I feel like I didn’t help the team as much as I could have. But it goes that way sometimes. I tried my best, and I know everyone in there gave it their all.”
The chippiness picked up late in the first period, and John Beecher went off for a late hit from behind on Eemil Erholtz in the neutral zone.
“The game was pretty emotional,” said Finland’s Toni Utunen, who scored the sudden-death winner on Canada in the 2019 quarter-finals. “There were many hits and some of them were pretty dirty. But things happen. I don’t have anything else to say.”
With less than five minutes left in the second period, U.S. blueliner Zac Jones came within a hair’s-breadth of opening the scoring when he hit the post.
In the third period, Lenni Killinen had the best early chance, but Knight stoned him from the slot. Annunen was equal to the task when Drury rushed in to tip the puck at point-blank range. However, Drury was subsequently sent off for hooking, leading to Oden’s opening goal.
As the U.S. battered in vain at Annunen’s wall, Finnish fans chanted the towering Karpat Oulu netminder’s name. The Americans got one last great opportunity for the equalizer when Antti Saarela was sent off for slashing with 1:15 remaining, and coach Scott Sandelin called his timeout to strategize.
It was Cole Caufield’s 19th birthday, but even on this special day, the sniper who tied Alexander Ovechkin’s single-tournament U18 Worlds goals record (14) back in April couldn’t find the range. Annunen foiled his quick release from the faceoff circle, and that was as close as the U.S. would get with their goalie pulled.
“We know that we are a good team, but we didn’t play that well in the group games. So now we’re showing everybody that we’re a good team, and we’ll see what happens in the next game,” added Tanus.
Things got ugly just before the final siren as American assistant captain Oliver Wahlstrom hit Ville Petman in the head and was ejected with a five-minute major.
Of losing, Turcotte said: “It stinks. We came together three weeks ago and became close as a team. Everyone’s sacrificing. You’re not home with your family. Everyone’s doing their best to win gold. To come up short and not even medal, it’s obviously tough.”
Meanwhile, Finland’s Raimo Helminen, who played in a record-setting six Winter Olympics and led the 1984 World Juniors in scoring en route to silver, is one step closer to his first gold medal as a head coach.
The only two previous U.S-Finland quarter-finals were lopsided American wins. Peter Mueller scored the power-play winner in a 6-3 romp in 2007 in Sweden (Mora), and Jerry D’Amigo led the way with two goals in a 6-2 victory in 2010 in Canada (Saskatoon).
After such a low-scoring affair, the U.S. and Finland may both reflect on how differently things could have played out if they had brought top 2019 draft choices Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko respectively.
Neither Hughes, the #1 overall pick of the New Jersey Devils, nor Kakko, the #2 overall pick of the New York Rangers, was released by his NHL club.
It is hard to see how another shot at World Junior gold could not have benefited each player’s development.
Regardless, as the U.S. packs its bags and Finland preps for the semi-finals, nobody is really in a woulda, coulda, shoulda mood right now. There’s still plenty of World Junior history to be made.