Finland’s dreams of repeating as champs are fading, while Sweden is dialed in so far. With a 3-1 win over Finland, the Swedes wrapped up first place in Group A.
If the Swiss beat Denmark on Friday, Finland will be eliminated from quarter-finals contention, which would be a truly shocking outcome.
“The good thing is Denmark has played so well here,” said Finnish captain Olli Juolevi. “They have surprised everyone. But this is not the way we wanted to go.”
Alexander Nylander scored twice and added an assist, and Lias Andersson added a single for Sweden, which rallied after trailing 1-0 for more than 32 minutes.
Of Nylander’s star turn, Andersson said: “He’s been in the right spot every time. He steps up every night for us. He’s scoring big goals for us and making good plays.”
Aapeli Rasanen had the lone goal for Finland.
Swedish starting goalie Felix Sandstrom won the Thursday night duel in Montreal with his Finnish counterpart Veini Vehvilainen as Finland outshot Sweden 29-20.
Sandstrom felt good about his performance after allowing two goals on 15 shots in a 4-2 win over Switzerland: “Yesterday’s game was a bit too bad from my side, so it was nice to come up big today and show the guys on the team that they can trust me.”
The Swedes are seeking their first gold since 2012 and first medal of any shade since 2014. The Tomas Monten-coached squad entered this battle with a 10-3 goal differential, and have been full value since Day One.
“We’re feeling very good,” Andersson said. “It was a big win for us to win the group.”
This wasn’t just a grudge match between the two classic Nordic rivals. It was supposed to be desperation time for the Finns, mired in last place in the group. Even without firepower to match last year’s top line of Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho, and Patrik Laine, nobody expected the defending champs to have zero points at this stage.
Under head coach Jukka Rautakorpi, Finland’s pop-gun offense has been a huge problem. Heading into this game, only Slovakia had scored fewer goals (two).
The Young Lions need to stop pussyfooting around. But it may already be too late.
“We lost to Sweden, Denmark, and the Czechs,” said Finland’s Eeli Tolvanen, who took seven shots on Sandstrom. “We can’t be happy.”
On New Year’s Eve, the Finns will need a regulation win over Switzerland to move on — and that’s only if the Swiss lose to Denmark. Earlier that day, Sweden takes on the Czech Republic.
The Swedes had one little problem here: they spent too much time in the penalty box, taking eight PIM to Finland’s zero. But it didn’t stop them from winning.
It was a tight-checking affair, and the Finns only got some momentum going on their first power play. Forward Otto Koivula drew the penalty when he got past Rasmus Dahlin at the Swedish blue line and the 16-year-old wunderkind tripped him up. Then, Tolvanen attempted a shot that defenceman Kristofer Gunnarsson blocked, and it deflected across to a wide-open Rasanen, who fired the puck into the gaping cage at 16:35.
Tolvanen and Rasanen, who play together with the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers, were an effective duo for the gold-medal U18 team in April, but had been blanked in Montreal until now. It was Finland’s first power play goal of the tournament.
Midway through the second period, the Finns got a 5-on-3 for 1:55 with Dahlin off for interference and Carl Grundstrom for putting the puck over the glass in his own end. But it came to naught, despite lots of puck movement around Sandstrom’s cage.
Andersson got his second of the tournament to knot the score at 12:16. Nylander backhanded a sweet feed from the side boards, and Andersson surprised Vehvilainen with a low wrister from the high slot.
“There were two guys coming up in a screen, and I tried to shoot through the screen, and it went in,” said Andersson. “So, perfect. Great pass from Alex, too.”
At 1:24 of the third, Nylander put Sweden up 2-1 on a gorgeous passing play. He controlled the puck outside the Finnish blue line and sent it right to Grundstrom, who dished it cross-ice to Joel Eriksson Ek. The Swedish captain found Nylander cruising in the slot, and the ever-cool 19-year-old whizzed it into the top corner.
Finland pressed in the dying stages, and pulled Vehvilainen for the extra attacker. But it was futile. Nylander intercepted the puck in the Swedish zone and scored into the empty net with one minute remaining to seal the deal.
“We got scoring chances in the last period, but we couldn’t score,” said Tolvanen. “That’s been our problem the whole tournament. We just can’t score.”
Montreal has not been friendly to the Finns. At the 2015 World Juniors, they also played at the Bell Centre, and scored just five goals in four games en route to sixth place.
At the World Junior level, Sweden-Finland is historically one of international hockey’s most even rivalries. In fact, prior to this game, the two nations shared a record of 16 wins, two ties, and 16 losses apiece, dating back to 1976.
However, the Swedes came in seeking revenge here after Finland ended their hopes of gold last year with a 2-1 semi-final victory. Consider that mission accomplished.
“Our goal at this tournament is to win the gold,” said Sandstrom. “I think our team is feeling stronger and stronger. I think we’ve played better and better.”