Finland avoided the ignominy of losing the first three games of the World Junior Championship by defeating Latvia 4-0 at the Scandinavia Am this afternoon. This was the 50th match in Latvia’s U20 history.
With this win, Finland earned three points in Group A and qualified for the quarterfinals, where they lost to Canada and Germany. Latvia, at 0-3, must beat Germany tomorrow and expects Germany to lose to Canada on Sunday. If that happens, they will also qualify for the play-offs, but if they lose tomorrow they will be in the relegation round with only one game to play.
Finland concludes its round-robin on Sunday night with a New Year’s Eve match against rival Sweden.
“We played better than the first two games,” said goalkeeper Noah Bali, who played for the U18s earlier this year and made his U20 debut, stopping all 23 shots in the shutout win. “We played as a group and continued to work hard throughout the game. The game against Sweden is going to be a crazy game. They have a good team, a lot of talented players. The fans are really fun. I think we can spend some time.”
For Latvia, the problem goes beyond mere victory. Like Austria in last year’s round robin, they have yet to score a goal through three games and do not have a sure-fire strategy to win.
“We got off to a good start in the defensive zone, but we didn’t take many shots,” forward Sandis Virmanis said. “And our discipline is still an issue. They scored three goals on the power play and that’s the main reason we lost.”
The way Latvia were dominated by Finland early on was a good introduction to why they hadn’t scored yet. Suomi won puck battles and controlled play at will inside Latvia’s blue line, and although Latvia contained Finland for a while (the game was scoreless for more than 14 minutes), it was too late for Finland to score. I thought it was a problem.
That feeling became reality when Tom’s Motts received a double minor for high sticking. During an extended power play, goaltender Deevs Rolofs, making his second start of the tournament, was unable to control Kasper Haltunen’s point shot, and at 14:15, captain Jere Lasila grabbed the rebound unattended. I was there to hit it into the net.
Just 58 seconds later, the Finns made it 2-0 after a rush. Leni Hamenaho made a great cross-ice pass through traffic, taped Jesse Pulkinen and fired a shot to the short side to double the lead.
During this period, Rolofs was hit with 20 shots, while on the other side Valli had to deal with only 3 shots, all of which were mostly harmless.
The second one was littered with a total of seven light penalties, but while Latvia improved defensively, they still couldn’t produce much offensively. Rolofs was great again, making a nice save from Lasila with his right pad, but the Finn brought the count up to 3-0 at 8:59 on a power play. Haltunen hit a low shot and beat Deaves for five holes. Moments later, Latvia’s best chance came when Dans Rokmeris hit the post with a 5-on-4 advantage.
Finland also scored on the power play early in the third game, with Oiva Keskinen firing a high shot to the short side over the head of Rolofs, who was covering the bottom of the goal. Jani Nyman thought Rolofs made the first save, then got a rebound of her own and reached even-5 with a nice solo shot at 10:29. However, Artis Abols took advantage of the coach’s challenge based on goalkeeper interference, and the referee agreed with him, resulting in a no-goal.
The match ended with Latvia 5-3 for the entire two minutes, but they tried their best not to let the first goal hurt them. And tomorrow’s game against Germany is finally at stake.