Finland recover from shaky start to see off Team USA in World Championships opener
Two third-period goals from Lasse Pirjetä seal 4-2 comeback win
Finland’s national ice hockey squad delivered an "All’s well that ends well" performance to start their campaign at the IIHF World Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic. After donating the USA team a 2-0 lead in the first period, the Finns clawed their way back into the game and eventually took a gritty 4-2 victory.
The opening 20 minutes must have made tough viewing for new head coach Raimo Summanen, who watched his charges dominate the proceedings without being able to convert the advantage into goals. Missed chances and some good work by U.S. goalie Mike Dunham prevented any Finnish scoring.
The Americans, however, were not prepared to be so spendthrift, and they capitalised on two huge defensive errors by the Finns to score through Jeff Harper and Chris Drury . Finnish goaltender Mika Noronen could hardly be blamed, since in both cases the puck was stolen from in front of Finnish noses and tucked away from close range.
Things got worse before they got better, with the Finns having to survive two U.S. power-plays in the first eight minutes of the second period, before Jukka Hentonen reduced the arrears to 2-1 after 34 minutes, and less than two minutes later captain Olli Jokinen swept home a second after connecting with a dream of a behind-the-back reverse pass from Ville Peltonen.
As the Americans tired in the third period, the sticky opening was forgotten, and Lasse Pirjetä smacked a slapshot past Dunham’s glove hand after good work by Antti Laaksonen at 52.55. Pirjetä, who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL, then wrapped things up on the power-play with just over a minute left, and once again Laaksonen delivered the final pass.
The Finns will doubtless take comfort from the gutsy recovery, but there are teams in this tournament that will take the gift of two early goals and will not run out of steam as the game progresses. The next opponents, however, should not pose too much trouble. Ukraine went down 2-0 to Slovakia in their opening encounter. The Finnish contingent will doubtless be hoping for a repeat of the last World Championship meeting between the two countries, when Finland skated to a 9-0 whitewash in Helsinki last year.
One of the other early Preliminary Round results will have raised a few eyebrows, namely Canada’s scrambled point in a 2-2 draw with lowly Austria, who had admittedly earlier handed out a 6-0 thrashing to relegation round candidates France. The Austrians led against Canada for more than half of the game, and were 2-0 up with just ten minutes left on the clock. Sweden also conceded an early goal to Japan, but the Swedes soon recovered their composure and notched up their second 5-1 victory in two days. They disposed of minnows Denmark on Saturday by the same score.
The World Championships this year contain an added bite, in that they have to be taken fairly seriously by all parties: the top eight teams will be automatically qualified to the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin.
After the Preliminary Round, contested in four groups of four teams each on a round-robin basis, the top three teams from each group will go forward to a Qualifying Round, played in two groups of six. These 12 teams carry forward the points gained in the Preliminary Round with the teams that they have played against and advance with. Teams that have played each other in the Preliminary Round do not meet again in the Qualification Round.
At the conclusion of the Qualification Round, the top four teams in each group (who have thus by this stage secured Olympic qualification) will play crossover Quarter Finals against teams from the other group of the Qualification Round. Winning the group ensures an easier passage through to the Semi-Finals, at least on paper.
The teams finishing last in their Preliminary Round groups do not go home immediately, but must meet in the nerve-wracking Relegation Round, with the 3rd and 4th teams there being sent down to Division One.
The tournament culminates in the Gold Medal game in Prague on Sunday, May 9th. IIHF World Championships 2004 http://live82.ihwc.net/english/
IIHF World Championships 2004