EDMONTON -- The Finnish National Junior Team capitalized on superior goaltending and untimely mistakes by Team USA on Wednesday en route to pulling a 4-1 upset in preliminary-round action in Group B of the World Junior Championship at Rexall Place.
The win was just what the Finns needed to climb right back into the mix for medal contention after being routed 8-1 by Team Canada in Monday's tournament opener.
After watching the U.S. pull into a 1-1 tie just 19 seconds into the third period, Joel Armia and Mikael Granlund connected 29 seconds apart midway through the period to give Finland a 3-1 lead. Armia closed out the scoring with his second of the game at 16:27.
"We have young guys and the fact we were playing in front of a full arena [against Canada] was a new situation for a lot of them," Granlund said. "Maybe it was too tense but when Canada scored two early goals, it was tough. We tried to just play our game and have fun [against the U.S.] and we did."
The U.S. received a golden opportunity to take its first lead of the game midway through the third period when Simo-Pekka Riikola was sent to the penalty box for holding. But U.S. goalie John Gibson took an interference penalty just 15 seconds later to nullify the man advantage -- and Armia scored during the 4-on-4.
The U.S. held a 39-27 advantage in shots but Finland goalie Sami Aittokallio, named his team's player of the game, was splendid throughout with 38 saves, including 16 in the second period.
"I think it was a must-win for us and now we're back in the mix again," Aittokallio said. "I'm happy with the effort but now we must forget about it and move on."
The Finns are looking to rebound from a sixth-place showing in last year's tournament -- their worst showing in six years.
"We have three great goalies, but Sami played an amazing game," Granlund said. "We need good goaltending if we are to do well."
Armia's go-ahead goal came when he broke in uncontested on Gibson after taking an outlet pass from Markus Granlund before directing a shot through the goalie's legs at 10:53 of the third period. Mikael Granlund extended the lead at 11:22 when his shot from low in the right circle deflected off the leg of U.S. defenseman Jon Merrill and slid past Gibson.
Armia scored his second of the game when he took a pass in the slot before jamming the puck underneath Gibson, who sprawled on the ice in vain.
"I thought I could have been better," said Gibson, who stopped 23 shots in his first start in a WJC game. "I take responsibility for that [loss]. I let some soft ones in there and wasn't on my game."
While U.S. coach Dean Blais knew it wouldn't be an easy game by any stretch, he was surprised with Finland's overall game.
"I thought Canada handled them so well in their offensive zone and created a lot of turnovers," Blais said. "But they seemed to get in and get the puck. We have to come up with more loose pucks in the offensive zone and get the puck to the net."
Blais was asked if his team was looking past the Finns.
"There's a tendency when you see the 8-1 score Canada put up, but they saw the game and knew what it would take to beat Finland but we didn't expose them as much as Canada," Blais said. "I don't know, maybe we're not in the same league as Canada, but we'll see."
The U.S. solved Aittokallio and tied the game 19 seconds into the third period when Brandon Saad cashed in from in tight after retrieving a pass from Emerson Etem for his first goal of the tournament.
"I don't think we were physical enough; they got to the net," Blais said. "I don't think our transition game was very good either way, from defense to offense, offense to defense. We've got to play a North American game. The Euros tend to go more East-West and I don't think that was part of it, but when we had the puck and we did have it a fair amount of time, we didn't get to the net."
Despite being outshot 24-9 through 40 minutes of play, Finland held a 1-0 lead over the United States thanks to a goal 1:21 into the second. Nashville Predators prospect Miika Salomaki controlled a pass from Armia low in the right circle before roofing a shot over a fallen Gibson.
Less than a minute later, Aittokallio did the splits to deny Nick Bjugstad's quick release from the left circle.
The Finns and Team USA both have 1-1-0 records in Group B. Both teams still have to face the Czech Republic, but the Finns' other game is against Denmark, while the Americans square off against Canada on New Year's Eve. The top three in each five-team group make the quarterfinals.
"Everyone hates losing but there are some positives to take from the game and we just have to get the next win in so it's not over yet," Saad said. "We have a lot to look forward to, it's not over yet. We have a lot to look forward to and now must play under pressure."
Both teams were able to generate some quality scoring chances during the opening 20 minutes but couldn't solve either goalie. Aittokallio, property of the Colorado Avalanche, had eight saves and Gibson turned aside four. The start for Gibson marked the first time since the 2010 WJC gold medal game against Team Canada that three-time WJC participant Jack Campbell didn't get the starting nod between the pipes.
"We knew they were a pretty good team, they're pretty skilled and they play hard and that's expected," Coyle said. "Whatever happened, happened. There's nothing we can do about it now."
Both teams return to action on Friday at Rexall Place -- the U.S. against the Czech Republic at 3:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US) and the Finns against Denmark at 8 p.m. ET.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer