SATURDAY: Finland defeat Russia in overtime to secure place in IIHF World Championships final
2-1 goal comes from Mikko Koivu after 65:40
Finland’s national ice hockey team sprang a big surprise at the IIHF World Championships in Moscow on Saturday afternoon, defeating the hosts Russia by 2-1 in a match that went into overtime after the teams were locked at 1-1 after 60 minutes.
The winning goal came from Mikko Koivu after 5:40 of overtime, following excellent work by Tuomo Ruutu. Finland’s first goal, cancelling out the Russian lead, came from Jukka Hentunen in the first period.
The second and third periods were scoreless, largely thanks to another standout performance from Finnish goalie Kari Lehtonen, who was a good deal more busy between the posts than his Russian counterpart.
Finland made an inauspicious start to the game, with a 5+20 penalty for Sean Bergenheim, and the Russian goal came from Yevgeni Malkin when the Finns were short-handed as aresult of that incident.
The Finnish reply was also scored with the hosts on the powerplay, after Mikko Koivu took a 2+10 penalty. Once the scores were level, it turned into a dogged display of team defending by the Finns, who gradually gained in confidence that they might cause an upset as the minutes ticked away and Lehtonen kept the puck out time after time.
Even during overtime, the Russian forwards held the whip-hand, but in a curious reversal of many past Finnish matches that have ended with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, on this occasion the side under pressure produced the goal against the run of play.
Finland will now play Canada for the gold medals, after the Canadians disposed of Sweden in the evening’s second semifinal, winning comfortably 4-1 (3-0,1-1,0-0).
It is the first time since 2001 that Finland has reached the final of the World Championships. The Finns have only won the title once, in 1995.
The match will be played at 19:15 local Finnish time on Sunday, and will be televised live on YLE TV2.
FRIDAY: Finland-USA 5-4 after penalties: Lions take the hard way into semi-finals
Lehtinen and Lehtonen the heroes of gripping encounter
After a tense and pulsating encounter that did much to restore local interest in a World Championships tournament that has so far slipped under the radar owing to the Eurovision Song Contest fever, Finland's ice hockey team progressed into the semi-finals at the expense of Team USA. The Finns won 5-4 (1-0, 3-3, 0-1, OT 0-0) in a match that went to overtime and eventually to a penalty shoot-out.
In all it took ten penalty attempts before a player from either side was able to get the puck past the goalies, and the final honour went to the experienced Dallas Stars forward Jere Lehtinen, who shot into the top of the net over John Grahame. Lehtinen was a late addition to the Finnish squad, after his NHL season came to an end.
The Finns charged onto the ice to congratulate Lehtinen in something approaching disbelief, since Finland's record in such all-or-nothing situations is pretty dismal: this was only the first penalties victory at this level since 1991.
If English footballer supporters have a rueful joke about "playing for 120 minutes and then the Germans win on penalties", the Finnish ice-hockey equivalent would be that "you play regular time and overtime - and then the Finns lose on penalties".
However, this time it was different, and the narrow win gives Finland a Saturday afternoon appointment in the semi-finals against hosts Russia, and a shot at the medals. The other semi-finalists are Canada and Sweden.
As a spectacle, last night's match was great nail-biting entertainment, but from the viewpoint of the two coaches, it was a bit of a nightmare.
The Finns made a hatful of gross defensive errors, and had to be grateful that their opponents matched them stride for stride in elementary mistakes. The second period in particular must have had Finnish head coach Erkka Westerlund and his American counterpart Mike Sullivan tearing their hair out, as six goals were scored in quick succession, mostly through ghastly blunders by the two defences.
The Finns were the first onto the scoreboard, even though the opening period was arguably edged by the USA team. Tuomo Ruutu struck with a low shot with three minutes left on the clock.
The advantage was cancelled out almost immediately after the start of the second period, and then goals from Pekka Saravo, Jari Viuhkola, and Tomi Kallio were one after another pegged back by American replies, until Andrew Hutchinson levelled things at 4-4 after 14:20 of the third period, to force the players into overtime.
The match could hardly have been more different from Finland's previous 1-0 lost game against Sweden, when the defence held strong but the forwards failed to score despite a host of chances. This time there was colourful action - albeit often of a tragi-comic nature - at both ends of the ice.
After making 28 saves in regulation time and a further ten big stops as the teams played four-on-four for overtime, Finnish goalie Kari Lehtonen from the Atlanta Thrashers was like a wall in the penalty shoot-out, saving everything fired at him, including two attempts by Phil Kessel.
So now the Finns go forward to an intriguing rematch against Russia, who won their earlier meeting 5-4.
The Finnish players will be hoping to get off to a quick start and to rekindle the spirit they showed in the third period of that Preliminary Round game, when they gave the Russians a fright.
The one question-mark surrounding an otherwise impressive Russian team, with a 100% record at the tournament, is how well they can cope with pressure if things do not start promisingly for them: an early Finnish goal or two could make for a very interesting outcome.
But the Lions will have to hope that their quota of defensive lapses was all used up against Team USA, or the Russia forwards will run riot.
In one respect at least, the Finns have learnt the knack of playing this kind of tournament: provided the team can do enough to beat a few "small" countries in the early stages, it matters little whom they lose to and by how much, just as long as they show up and win game #7.
If the team goes on to greater things, few will remember the humdrum wins over the likes of Ukraine and Denmark, or the fact that they lost to Russia and Sweden on their way to glory.
Thursday's other quarter-final saw Canada brush past Switzerland 5-1 (1-0, 2-1, 2-0), so expunging the bitter memories of a shock 2-0 defeat at Swiss hands in the Torino Olympics.
On Wednesday Sweden and Russia also progressed. The Swedes beat Slovakia 7-4 (1-2, 3-0, 3-2), while the host nation took the Czech Republic to the cleaners with a 4-0 shutout victory.
The semi-finals are both on Saturday, while the bronze-medal match and the final will be on Sunday. All four games will be televised live on YLE's TV2.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finnish Lions leave it too late in Moscow (2.5.2007)
Finns progress into World Championships quarter-finals despite defeat to Sweden (7.5.2007)
IIHF World Championships, Moscow