The Czech Republic surprised defending champion Finland 2-1 in their opener on Monday night. Michael Spacek scored the winner with 1:18 remaining.
With Adam Musil screening in front, Spacek cut to the middle of the ice and lofted a long shot past Finnish goalie Veini Vehvilainen. Spacek, a 19-year-old Winnipeg Jets prospect, is playing in his third straight IIHF World Junior Championship.
“It was a good feeling,” said Spacek. “This goal is special in my career.”
Daniel Krenzelok had the other goal for the Czechs, who sang as they came off the ice. Joona Luoto replied for the Finns.
“Everybody was disappointed,” said Finland’s Eeli Tolvanen. “We wanted to win the first game and get more confidence. We just have to keep going.”
The Czechs haven’t won any U20 medals since 2005’s bronze in Grand Forks, North Dakota. They finished fifth last year under coach Jakub Petr, who’s returned for 2017.
Finland, which beat Russia in overtime in last year’s final in Helsinki, is looking for its third gold medal in four years. Finland also topped host Sweden in overtime in the 2014 final in Malmo.
“We can still win this tournament,” said Finnish captain Olli Juolevi, a tournament all-star last year with nine points. “We haven’t lost anything, kind of. It’s just one game, and we have to be ready to play tomorrow against Denmark.”
The Czechs, whose average age is 19 to Finland’s 18, outshot their opponents 30-23.
Named Finland’s Player of the Game, Vehvilainen probably deserved a better fate. He is most noted for his superb 60-save performance in a 2-1 overtime loss to the United States in the final of the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. The Jyvaskyla native was Finland’s starter at the World Juniors, but was replaced by Kaapo Kahkonen in the quarter-final against Canada and never got the net back.
Last year, Finland edged the Czechs 5-4 in a strange run-and-gun affair. This game in Montreal was much tighter.
The Czechs came out aggressively and drew first blood at 4:27. Krenzelok floated a shot from the left point that bounced off Henrik Borgstrom’s back. Vehvilainen got a piece of it with his glove, but it still found the top corner. Moments later, the Finnish goalie made a fine save on Tomas Soustal’s slot attempt on a 2-on-1 rush.
At 8:56, Finland equalized on Luoto’s gutsy solo effort. He stole the puck from Musil in the neutral zone, got past defenceman Petr Kalina, and lifted it past Czech goalie Jakub Skarek on the short side.
In the second period, the teams traded ineffective power plays. Tolvanen had an impactful shift with about seven minutes left in the frame, cutting in from right wing and forcing Skarek to make a nice pad save before hammering Lukas Jasek into the boards.
Early in the third, the Finns were penalized for too many men on the ice, but the Czechs squandered their advantage. Finland pulled Vehvilainen in the final minute, seeking the tying goal, but to no avail.
“All three periods, we didn’t play like individuals,” said Czech forward Filip Chlapik. “We played like a team. I think that’s why we won.”
Finland had more high-profile firepower at the 2016 tournament with the top line of Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho, and Patrik Laine. All three forwards were eligible to return for 2017, but are with their respective NHL clubs.
“Those guys are some of the best players right now in the NHL,” said Juolevi. “It’s a big loss for any team, especially Finland. But we can’t do anything about that. They’re not here now, and we have to play with this team.”
Similarly, the Czechs don’t have anyone of David Pastrnak’s calibre this year. He and Laine are currently tied for second place in NHL goals (19) behind Sidney Crosby (24).
Jukka Rautakorpi is seeking his first World Junior medal as Finland’s head coach. He previously coached the team in 1999 (fifth), 2008 (sixth), and 2009 (seventh). Karri Kivi helmed the 2014 gold and Jukka Jalonen was in charge last year.
The last time Finland lost a World Junior game was 28 December, 2015, falling 6-4 to Russia.
Next up for the Finns is Denmark on Tuesday evening. The Czechs have little time to rest, playing the early game against Switzerland that day.
“Switzerland is a good team,” said Spacek. “They lost 4-3 to Canada in overtime [in exhibition]. So it’s not easy. I hope we play tomorrow like today.”