At times it looked more like a cartoon than a hockey game.
There were the formidable Americans – long, gangly kids stepping over the boards like giraffes – up against the already-dismissed Finns (courtesy of Canada’s 8-1 Boxing Day blowout), the shorter, stockier Europeans more like Shetland ponies in need of a boost to vault the boards.
And yet, and yet …
This was not the Finnish team of the Dec. 26 embarrassment. That game had been all about stage fright and Canadian bounces, a strong home team pouncing on an early lead and racing with it while the Finns grew increasingly eager for the game to end.
This Finnish team had a fresh face in goal, Sami Aittokallio, and a fresh sheet of ice on which to rewrite their ugly tournament story. And they did exactly that, this time enjoying home crowd advantage with the cheers for their white and blue coming from the red and white of those thousands of Canadian fans who had tickets to this game but not to the later match featuring Canada against the Czech Republic. Nor was this the U.S. team of the 2010 world junior championship held in Saskatoon, where they skated at warp speed and stunned a very strong Canadian team in the gold-medal game with a 6-5 overtime win.
This American team is mostly huge – defenceman Jarred Tinordi the hugest at 6 foot 7 – but Wednesday afternoon at Rexall Place they appeared slow relative to the darting Finns and, strangely, complacent while the Finns were feisty. Unless matters change, and dramatically, it hardly bodes well for the New Year’s Eve centrepiece of this tournament, when the rival Canadians and Americans are scheduled to meet in the final game before the tournament centres in Calgary to decide the medals.
While the Americans outshot the Finns 24-9 by the end of two periods, that statistic told next to nothing of the game. The Finns were ahead 1-0 when, off a cycle play in the right corner, Miikka Salomaki was allowed to walk out and roof a wrist shot past the glove of U.S. goaltender John Gibson.
At the other end, Aittokallio was superb and perfectly positioned on all direct shots, though he did allow a goal 19 seconds into the third period when Brandon Saad was left alone in front of the Finnish crease and tipped in a cross-ice pass from Emerson Etem.
How the Finns went on to win this game hinged on perhaps the most powerful force in this tournament – not speed, not size, but poor youthful judgment.
With the Americans pressing hard in the third period, the U.S. team was given a power play, only to have Gibson squander that by immediately taking an unnecessary interference penalty.
The Finns were able to turn that faux pas into renewed energy, with Joel Armia scoring on a partial breakaway by slipping the puck through Gibson’s five-hole. Then, a half minute later, the Finns went ahead 3-1 when a cross-ice pass clicked in off the skate of U.S. defenceman Jon Merrill. That goal was credited to Mikael Granlund.
Granlund’s brother, Markus, then helped set up Arnia for his second goal of the game, a week effort that Gibson should easily have stopped.
By the time the buzzer went, the dismissed Finnish teens had whipped the vaunted U.S. teens 4-1 in a game that no one but a proud Finnish grandparent could have predicted.
But then, that is the true beauty of the world juniors.
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