One down, two to go…
…and then comes the all-important ”seventh game”
Finland took care of business on Friday night in their first Qualification Round Group E match at the IIHF World Championships in Germany, winning 2-0 against Belarus.
After a goalless first period, the Finns scored twice through Jarkko Immonen and Juha-Pekka Hytönen, and in the third period, when Belarus might have had a chance to answer back, Pekka Rinne made some good saves to earn a shut-out.
The relatively composed and comfortable win takes the Finnish Lions on to six points in the group, and keeps them on course to qualify for the knock-out stages and the quarter-finals, but only if they can also dispose of Slovakia in similar fashion tonight.
The Slovaks, who will be strengthened by the arrival of Boston NHL star Miroslav Satan, will be smarting from a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Denmark, the clear surprise package of this tournament.
One thing the Finns will need to address tonight is their goalscoring prowess.
In four matches they have scored just seven times, and during the Preliminary Round stage they racked up 117 shots on goal with only five of them finding their way into the net.
Then comes the big game, against Russia on Tuesday. The Russians are one of only two teams in the tournament who have not yet tasted defeat, and they are also the reigning World Champions, having won the title in 2009 and 2008. They ended the proud Danish march on Sunday with a comprehensive and darkly ominous 6-1 victory.
The other unbeaten team - in Qualification Round Group F - is not Canada, nor is it Sweden, but Switzerland, who have almost emulated the Danish heroics by beating the Canadians 4-1 in the Preliminary Round stages and the Czech Republic 3-2 in the first Qualification round match. The Swedes also beat the Canadians 3-1, but lost 2-1 to the Czechs in the Preliminary Round.
In part because of these topsy-turvy results, it is impossible to say who Finland will face in the quarter-finals, if indeed they progress that far, but the nature of these tournaments is that success in the Qualification Round stages offers the chance of meeting a "weaker" opponent in the last eight, since the winners of one Qualification Group will meet the fourth-placed team in the other group, while the second and third-placed teams also face off.
In any event, it is always "the seventh game" that is crucial - victory ensures a passage to the semi-finals and a shot at a medal of some description, while defeat leaves the team in the limbo of 5th to 8th place in the tournament and collecting their belongings for the flight home.
Tonight's Finland-Slovakia game will be on YLE TV2 from 17:00. Other fixtures on Monday are Norway against Switzerland, Belarus against Denmark, and the Czech Republic against Latvia.
In the Relegation Group, which resumes on Tuesday, the United States have spared their blushes by pounding Kazakhstan 10-0 and France 4-0, and they head the table ahead of their final game against Italy.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Lions remain in contention at Hockey World Championships after narrow 3-2 victory over Team USA (14.5.2010)
IIHF World Championships 2010 (Wikipedia)