Finnish Lions suffer nightmare weekend at the hands of the North Americans
One more largely meaningless Preliminary Round match, and then the game gets tough
It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good weekend for Finnish ice hockey fans.
The Finnish Lions, co-hosts of this year's IIHF World Championships in Helsinki and Stockholm, had enjoyed a 100% record in their four games to date, but on Friday they surrendered a two- goal lead to Canada and ended up on the wrong end of a 5-3 scoreline.
This was bad enough for morale and for the prospect of an "easy" berth in the quarter-finals, but worse was to come on Sunday, as lions became lambs and were duly slaughtered by Team USA, who skated to a 5-0 victory in front of a stunned Mother's Day crowd in the Hartwall Arena.
The Finns - reigning world champions - have already qualified for the last eight, thanks to early victories against benign European opposition, but barring some very unlikely upsets in the last matches of the Preliminary Round they will have to face the probable group runners-up the United States all over again in the last eight, and they will need to improve very substantially on Sunday's dismal showing to remain in the tournament.
The irony of it all was that things started out so well.
For twenty minutes on Friday, the Finns were flying, and they gave the Canadians a lesson in power hockey that had the fans dancing in the aisles. Goals by Antti Pihlström and captain Mikko Koivu saw them reach the buzzer 2-0 to the good, and even after Alexandre Burrows pulled a goal back for the visitors Jussi Jokinen restored the two-goal advantage.
Then the wheels rather fell off, and Canada stepped things up to draw level through John Tavares and Jeff Skinner, before Evander Kane put them in front after six minutes of the third period.
Jordan Eberle's goal into an empty net in the final minute of the game put the icing on the cake, and the blue-and-white contingent in the crowd that drifted out of the Hartwall Arena had very long faces.
The win made it more than likely that Canada would top the group, and on Saturday they more or less confirmed this by thumping Kazakhstan 8-0.
This result was all the more impressive considering that Kazakhstan had given the United States a bit of a fright in Friday's other game in Helsinki, taking the Americans to overtime before losing 3-2.
Anyone who had looked at that result from Friday might have been hoping for an easier ride for the Lions on Sunday when the Americans showed up, but regrettably it was only Team USA who showed up - the Finns were regrettably on some other planet.
Far from dancing and singing, the fans eventually booed the Finnish players off the ice as they went down 0-1, 0-2, 0-2 in a display that left coach Jukka Jalonen practically lost for words.
"No movement, no fight, no determination. All these elements ought to be present in a good ice hockey game. Everything else comes afterwards", he said after the game, and held up his hand that the team's coaching staff accepted the ultimate responsibility for a performance that was anaemic at best and utterly woeful at worst.
The Americans went ahead through a Max Pacioretty goal towards the end of the first period, and then effectively killed things off with two more - through Kyle Palmieri and Justin Faulk - in the second.
Any hopes among the supporters of a late recovery by the champions were scotched through two quick strikes in the first five minutes of the third period by Chris Butler and Bobby Ryan.
As if to rub salt in the wounds, Finland's Anssi Salmela got himself sent off - and picked up a three-game suspension - for a completely mindless boarding of the USA’s defenceman Alex Goligoski soon after the fifth goal went in.
The Finnish goalie Kari Lehtonen, who had not had an outstanding game even though he could hardly be blamed for the scoreline, was also injured eight minutes from the end and was replaced by Petri Vehanen.
The result will mean that Jalonen and Co. will have to wipe the slate very clean for the quarter-finals, as after the last Preliminary Round game tonight against Kazakhstan (always assuming they win it), the Finns look to be locked in for a rematch with the Americans in the first knock-out stage, when victory and defeat matter a lot more than simply in terms of morale and national pride.
Interestingly enough, when Finland won the World Championship title in Bratislava last year, they did not meet any North American sides at any stage in the tournament - the Czechs bounced out the USA and Russia disposed of Canada in the quarter-finals.
The weekend's other games saw Russia emphatically taking top honours in Preliminary Group S in Stockholm, with a 7-3 mauling of the Swedes, and also the rise of Norway to be a contender for the fourth quarter-final place behind the Czech Republic.
Norway beat Latvia and Germany, their main rivals for this berth, by 3-0 and 12-4 respectively, and it was something of a shame that only 2,400 turned up in Stockholm's Globen Arena to see the highest scoring game of the tournament so far on Sunday.
The Russians underlined their dominance of the group with a routine 2-0 win over the Czech Republic, and it is already clear that Russia and Sweden will be the top two in the group and will therefore not meet again until the final or the bronze-medal game, if they progress that far.
Finland's game against Kakazhstan tonight makes for an unfortunate dress-rehearsal for Thursday's quarter-final encounter, as it will probably not offer much by way of situations in which to iron out weaknesses in the side.
Perhaps the only thing that can be hoped for is a chance for some players to get their shattered confidence back and to restore belief in the team's chances of turning things around and progressing into the medal rounds.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Lions brush aside France, but Canada await (11.5.2012)
2012 IIHF World Championships (Wikipedia)
IIHF Official Site