BUFFALO -- The U.S. National Junior Team began the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship the same way it ended last year's tournament -- with a dramatic victory in overtime.
Only, instead of celebrating a win against Canada in the gold-medal game, as it did 11 months ago, the U.S. survived a scare from Finland in the first game of the Group A preliminary round.
Nick Bjugstad was the hero, scoring an unassisted goal off a shot from the left circle that beat screened Finland goalie Joni Ortio through the five-hole before and trickled over the line with just 1:52 remaining in the extra session to give the U.S. a 3-2 win Sunday here at HSBC Arena.
"The puck was just sitting on the blue line and it's OT, 4-on-4, so obviously my eyes are getting a little big seeing that, so I just took it in, cut across and shot it between the defenseman's legs," Bjugstad said. "The goalie didn't really see it because it kind of trickled in."
U.S. goalie Jack Campbell, who was the winning goaltender in last year's gold-medal game against Canada, finished with 32 saves. Ironically, Campbell also made 32 saves in that OT triumph against Canada after replacing Mike Lee in net 3:56 into the second period.
"We knew going in the Finns would be the hardest-working team in the tournament," Campbell said. "Our goal was to out-work them and I'm so proud of the fact we came out and executed the game plan and the coaches did a great job preparing us.
"It's pretty crazy that I also made 32 saves in our last OT game in the World Juniors, but it's a lot of fun to go into overtime and to win makes it that much more fun."
Finland, which exhibited great patience throughout, outshot the U.S. 34-30.
Finland forced overtime when Iiro Pakarinen jammed home a rebound during a relentless chase to the puck following Campbell's initial stop on Erik Haula at 12:49 of the third.
"It's easier to build off a win like this," U.S. coach Keith Allain said. "I think the fact it was a hard win will be good for us. Losing sometimes could be a great teacher, but not in the first game of the tournament. Having to fight like we did … we can get lots of lessons from this."
Justin Faulk and Jason Zucker also scored for Team USA, which next faces Slovakia on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET., NHLN-US).
"We definitely like to keep it close," Kyle Palmieri told NHL.com. "Finland played a really good game, but going forward, we got a lot of work to get done and hopefully we'll work on that before our next game."
Palmieri, a 2009 first-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks who played 10 games with the Ducks earlier this season, had two good opportunities to put the U.S. ahead prior to overtime, but one shot rang off the left post and another was lifted wide of the net off a semi-breakaway.
"I hit the post shooting back across my body," Palmieri said. "I just pushed it a little wide and turned out it hit the side of the net. I think coming out of last year, USA Hockey wanted to focus on getting the same type of team we had last year. We knew what we had to do and having a couple of returnees is helpful in the locker room and on the ice. We're looking to find our identity and as the tourney goes on, we'll work even more as a team to get it."
The teams exchanged goals in the second.
Trailing after one period, Finland tied the game at 13:50 of the second when Toni Rajala pounced on a U.S. turnover behind its net and fed the puck to Joonas Nattinen, and the Canadiens prospect slammed home the shot from the slot.
Just 1:18 later, however, Jason Zucker put the U.S. ahead. Chris Brown checked his man off the puck, providing Zucker, a 2010 second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, an unassisted attempt.
"I am sorry for my players because we lost, but proud of my team," Finland coach Lauri Marjamaki said. "We trust ourselves and we did well. We have to keep going."
Campbell came up big on two occasions in the second period, denying Haula, another Wild draft pick, on a point-blank attempt from between the circles at the 12:45 mark and then Pakarinen's jam in the crease at 18:03.
It took a while before the U.S. finally got into gear in the opening period, but once they did, the opportunities came fast and furious.
"The main thing is we were able to make the big play at the right time, and that's what good hockey teams do," Allain said. "I thought our goaltending was good, the defense was good and we showed great resiliency to win the hockey game. I think we have to make better decisions with the puck in our zone and the neutral zone, but those are correctable."
The U.S. cashed in on its second power play of the first when defenseman Justin Faulk ripped a slap shot from the point past Ortio with just 1:05 left in the period for a 1-0 lead. Jonathan Merrill fed Faulk along the blue line after some good work by Chris Kreider down low.
Prior to the goal, however, Team USA was aided by the steady play of Campbell, who turned aside nine shots in the first. The Finns haven't beaten Team USA in three previous meetings in the WJC. Finland also is playing the tournament without playmaking forward Mikael Granlund. The player taken by the Wild with the ninth pick of the 2010 Entry Draft is dealing with post-concussion syndrome. Granlund is cleared for practice -- which he is doing in Finland -- but not for games.
Ortio, a Calgary Flames prospect, finished with six saves in the first. Team USA's top line of Kreider centering Charlie Coyle and Palmieri was the trio that finally pumped some life into Team USA with less than six minutes remaining in the first. The club earned the U.S. its first chance with the man-advantage, and despite the fact they failed to score, they made a much more concerted effort to sustain pressure in the Finland end -- and it remained that way for the remainder of the game.