Aleksi Heponiemi got the third-period winner as Finland temporarily passed the U.S. for second place in Group A with a hard-working 5-2 win over Slovakia.
Markus Nurmi added a goal and an assist, and Joona Koppanen, Aapeli Räsänen and Henri Ikonen also scored for Finland. Martin Bodák and Samuel Buček replied for Slovakia.
“Even though we are kind of the bigger country in hockey, Slovakia is a good team too,” said Finland’s Olli Juolevi. “They were a tough opponent for us today. I’m happy we got the win.”
Finland and the U.S. will face off in a likely showdown for second place in the group on New Year’s Eve. Finland has won two straight since dropping its Boxing Day opener to Canada.
“After the Canada game, we’ve improved our play and have the two wins,” said Finnish goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. “Of course, we could have been better against Canada, but we can’t do anything about that now. We have to get ready now for tomorrow and play well against the U.S.”
Could the Slovaks maintain the extraordinary focus and emotional level they reached in their 3-2 win over the defending champion Americans? Heading into this game, that was the question on everyone’s mind. Slovak goalie Roman Durny got his second straight start after his upset debut, and he was busy as Finland outshot Slovakia 39-26.
“We have already put the U.S. game behind us,” said Slovakia’s Filip Krivošík. “Today was a new day. We wanted to take at least one point from today’s game to make sure we got into the playoffs, but we didn’t do that.”
The Slovaks will face Denmark in a crucial battle on New Year’s Eve.
In a scoreless, evenly played first period, there were several close calls. Finnish defenceman Kasper Kotkansalo saved a goal by pulling the puck off the goal line, and also rang a howitzer off the post.
Forechecking diligently, the Finns outshot Slovakia 18-5 to dominate the second period. They opened the scoring at 7:45 when Juha Jääskä fed Koppanen cross-crease for his second goal of the tournament.
“I liked Joona Koppanen’s game today,” said Finnish coach Jussi Ahokas. “Penalty kill and otherwise, he played the way we want.”
However, after killing two penalties in the first period, the Finns didn’t take the initiative with their own first two man advantages in the second period.
The Slovaks fought back on the rush. Forward Alex Tamáši found Bodák coming late down the middle, and the big captain sent it through Luukkonen’s pads at 14:14.
When Slovakia’s Tomáš Hedera put the puck over the glass and was penalized for delay of game, Finland finally got a huge power play goal with just 58 seconds left in the middle frame. Juolevi stepped into the left faceoff circle and sent a hard pass in front for Räsänen to tip in.
“I had a lot of time,” said Juolevi. “It was a good pass from Eeli Tolvanen to me. We talk a lot about the power play. We haven’t really been that good on the power play this year here. But I think it’s getting better.”
At 6:23 of the third, Heponiemi put Finland up 3-1. The star of the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos stormed to the net and Janne Kuokkanen’s pass deflected first off his backhand and then his skate into the net. After a review, it was concluded that no deliberate kicking motion was used, and the goal stood.
With a never-say-die attitude, Buček, who scored the spectacular solo winner versus the Americans, corraled a bouncing puck to lift it past Luukkonen’s glove and make it 3-2 at 9:03.
Yet Slovakia’s joy was short-lived. The Finns restored their two-goal lead off an unusual play. At 12:36, Ikonen was credited with a goal directly off a faceoff in the Slovak end, with Durny looking stunned as the puck slid through his pads. Slovak forward Adam Růžička, who won the draw a little too forcefully, did not intend that to happen.
“It was a different goal, that’s for sure,” said Ikonen. “I just lost the face-off, but it was really lucky that it went in. A goal is a goal.”
“That was probably the first time I’ve ever seen that in my career,” said Juolevi.
Nurmi made it 5-2 Finland at 14:01 when he was allowed to step off the goal line unobstructed and ding a backhander off Durny’s right post.
“We need to forget about this game and have a good sleep and get ready for tomorrow,” said Krivošík.
With the result, Finland’s all-time World Junior record against Slovakia improved to nine wins, one tie, and four losses.
Legendary Finnish agitator and five-time Stanley Cup champion Esa Tikkanen was among the ex-NHLers in attendance.
IHLC: With the win, Finland captures their 28th International Hockey Lineal Championship, their first title since the 2016 Four Nations Cup, and becomes the third different nation to hold the IHLC in as many games at these World Championships. The Finns improve to 2-0 all-time against Slovakia over the IHLC, their only previous win being a 3-1 World Championship victory at the 2001 Worlds in Moscow. The IHLC will now join the Finns for their Group A finale, against the tournament’s incumbent champions, the United States, with the winner clinching Group A and carrying the title into the medal rounds.
01:06 – PEN – Heponiemi, hooking
14:32 – PEN – Tolvanen, holding
20:39 – PEN – Kelemen, tripping
27:02 – GOAL – Koppanen (Nurmi, Jääskä)
28:23 – PEN – Kundrik, high sticking
34:14 – GOAL – Bodák (Tamáši, Ivan)
37:16 – PEN – Hedera, delay of game
39:02 – PP GOAL – Räsänen (Juolevi, Tolvanen)
41:16 – PEN – Studenič, charging
43:58 – PEN – Jääskä, high sticking
46:23 – GOAL – Heponiemi (Kuokkanen)
49:03 – GOAL – Buček (Krivošík, Růžička)
49:22 – PEN – Vesalainen, hooking
52:36 – GOAL – Ikonen
54:01 – GOAL – Nurmi (Koppanen)
W: Luukkonen (24-26)
L: Durny (34-39)
SHOTS ON GOAL
9+18+12 = 39
11+5+10 = 26
Goaltenders: Lassi Lehtinen, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Defence: Miro Heiskanen (A), Henri Jokiharju, Olli Juolevi, Kasper Kotkansalo, Robin Salo, Urho Vaakanainen, Juuso Välimäki (C). Forwards: Aleksi Heponiemi, Joni Ikonen, Jere Innala, Juha Jääskä, Otto Koivula, Joona Koppanen, Janne Kuokkanen (A), Rasmus Kupari, Markus Nurmi, Aapeli Räsänen, Eeli Tolvanen, Eetu Tuulola, Kristian Vesalainen.
Goaltenders: Roman Durny, Dávid Hrenák. Defence: Martin Bodák (C), Martin Fehérváry (A), Samuel Fereta, Tomáš Hedera, Michal Ivan, Marek Korenčík, Dávid Matejovič, Vojtech Zeleňák. Forwards: Samuel Buček, Viliam Cacho (A), Miloš Kelemen, Filip Krivošík, Peter Kundrik, Adam Liška, Miloš Roman, Adam Růžička, Erik Smolka, Samuel Solenský, Marian Studenič, Alex Tamáši.