Finns progress into World Championships quarter-finals despite defeat to Sweden
The Finnish national team progressed predictably into the quarter-finals of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships in Moscow on Sunday night, in spite of losing their final qualifying round encounter to Sweden.
The Swedes won with the only goal of the match, and whilst many will point the finger at goaltender Kari Lehtonen for scooping a puck into the net that was heading high and wide, at least as much of the blame lies with the inefficiency of the Finnish forwards at scoring down the other end of the ice.
Before the loss to Sweden, the Finns had done enough to see off Switzerland (2-0: 0-0, 0-0, 2-0) and Italy (3-0: 2-0, 0-0, 1-0) and so guarantee their progress into the knock-out stages, though without looking particularly convincing against only mediocre opposition.
When the quality of opponents improved, and the Finns met a side who knew how to defend their goal, things immediately got a lot tougher, and they were not helped by a stand-out showing on Sunday night from the Swedish goalie Johan Backlund, who made 38 saves.
The two teams were eventually separated by just one first-period strike from Swedish defenseman Johan Akerman. With just over four minutes of the period remaining, he fired in a high slapshot from close to the the blueline, and it was heading wide of goal, but Kari Lehtonen stretched for the puck and it cannoned off the edge of his glove and down into the net.
The Finns had the upper hand during the first period, but the Swedes had a goal. The Swedes then took the second period, and the Finns the third, but without posing any real threat that they would turn their possession into an equaliser or better.
Seven powerplay opportunities went begging in the course of the game, and the team - which has been given several reshuffles in the course of the tournament - still does not seem to have gelled into an efficient scoring unit.
The result leaves Finland in third place in their group, and with a Thursday quarter-final match in prospect against the loser of Monday night's encounter between Canada and Team USA. On this showing, neither of these two teams will exactly be quaking in their skates at the thought of facing the Finnish Lions.
To a great extent the Finnish qualifying round matches were a repeat of the preliminary round - two fixtures against lower-ranking sides like Switzerland and Italy that had to be got out of the way without slipping on a banana-skin, and just one serious workout against a quality outfit. In both instances, the Lions collected two wins and a narrow defeat. They lost 5-4 to Russia in the preliminary round.
The current World Championships format of sixteen teams rather accentuates the narrowness of the top end of international hockey: although Germany did nearly cause one upset by beating the Czech Republic last week, in all other respects the results thus far have been highly predictable and the eight teams left in the tournament could have been forecast a long time ago.
Even the Czechs' surprising 2-0 defeat at the hands of Germany on Thursday did not ultimately cost them so dear: they had gone from the preliminary round into the qualifying round unbeaten and carrying six points, and they collected an extra point for a 4-3 overtime defeat to Canada on Sunday, and this was enough to guarantee them a berth in the last eight.
The quarter-final matchings are unclear as yet, because Sweden & Russia and Canada & the United States still have to play for victory and bragging-rights in their respective groups, but it is clear that the Finns will be third and the Swiss fourth in Group E, and that Slovakia - who made heavy weather of beating Belarus 4-3 - will take third place in Group F, with the Czech Republic grabbing the last place in the knock-out stages.
In Sunday's other match the hosts Russia despatched Switzerland 6-3, but will be without Alexander Ovechkin for their game against Sweden. The highly-rated Washington Capitals forward got a game penalty and a one-match suspension for a hit on Swiss forward Valentin Wirz in the first period.
The winners of each group will play the fourth-placed team from the other group, and the second-placed teams will meet the third-placed teams.
Defeat from then onwards means a trip home, and it is to be hoped that this will concentrate the Finnish players' minds. Otherwise this tournament, which is the last under the stewardship of head coach Erkka Westerlund, will leave a rather unsatisfactory taste in the mouth.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finnish Lions leave it too late in Moscow (2.5.2007)
IIHF World Championships, Moscow