Penalty shoot-out victory over Canada not quite enough
Finnish Lions turn in their best performance of the World Championships
Finland beat Canada on Monday night in the last game of the qualification round at this year's IIHF World Championships in Switzerland, but it was not quite enough to secure top spot in the group and a quarter-final against Latvia.
The Finns, giving easily their best performance of the tournament so far, emerged 4-3 victors only after overtime and penalties, and in order to leapfrog over the Canadians, they would have needed a win in normal time.
As a result, they finish second in the group, and will face the United States on Wednesday in the first of the knock-out matches.
After the disappointments of the games against Slovakia and Belarus, this was nevertheless a very encouraging performance, and when both teams were at full strength, the Finns proved to be more than a handful for the fancied Canadian side.
The Lions were clearly up for it, and raced into a 2-0 lead through Tuomas Pihlman and Anssi Salmela in the first ten minutes of the opening period, as the Canadians - hitherto untroubled in their previous five matches - suddenly found themselves being repeatedly overrun by a side that was not afraid to tackle hard and skate fast.
Jason Spezza pulled a goal back for Canada after 16 minutes, on the powerplay.
And it was here, when giving the Canadians a one-man advantage, that the Finns lost their chance of winning an even more satisfying victory.
Although the Finnish team went 3-1 up through Niko Kapanen towards the end of the second period, the reply took only 54 seconds: Dany Heatley scored an important powerplay goal to keep Canada in the hunt.
A third Canadian goal, again from Heatley, again with the Finns playing short-handed, levelled the scores mid-way through the last period, and with overtime producing no further score, it went to the lottery of penalties.
Hannes Hyvönen goes into the books as the Finnish player who broke the deadlock by putting the puck past Dwayne Roloson in the Canadian goal.
Roloson's part in the proceedings was important: after a slightly shaky start he played a blinder, making 50 saves to the 29 required of Pekka Rinne in the Finnish goal.
Time and again it was Roloson who stood up as the Finns cut through the Canadian defence, particularly in the second period, when Canada took six minor penalties to Finland's three, allowing the Finnish forwards numerous opportunities to score.
Equally, Canada showed that they are an extremely adept side at penalty-killing: aside from topping the powerplay statistics with 16 goals and a 44% strike rate, they are third in penalty-killing, behind Austria (who have arguably been playing inferior opposition in the relegation group) and other tournament favourites Russia.
With this win under their belt, the Finns can look ahead with some confidence to Wednesday's match against Team USA, who went down to a 4-3 overtime defeat to hosts Switzerland.
It was not enough for the Swiss. They, too, had to win in normal time to realise their hopes, and they missed out on a quarter-final placing.
Sweden disposed of France 6-3 to ensure 2nd place in Group E behind the Russians, and they will play the Czech Republic in an intriguing match on Thursday, before Canada take on Latvia.
The fourth quarter-final game, between Russia and Belarus, was already pencilled in on Sunday night.
In the Relegation Group, made awkward by the fact that Germany were protected from the drop by hosting next year's World Championships, Denmark beat Austria 5-2 in the crucial match.
This means Austria will join Hungary in going down to Division I next year, in spite of the fact that they finished second in the group and beat Germany 1-0 in the process.
Quarter-finals (all times Finnish local time):
Wednesday 17:15 Russia vs. Belarus
Wednesday 21:15 Finland vs. USA
Thursday 17:15 Canada vs. Latvia
Thursday 21:15 Sweden vs. Czech Republic
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finnish Lions stumble on path to quarter-finals (4.5.2009)
2009 IIHF World Championships (official site)
IIHF World Championships (Wikipedia)