COLOGNE – Finland and Team USA had a winner-take-all game. Finland took it all, Team USA the fall. Team captain Sami Kapanen scored the game winning goal as Finns beat the Americans 3-2.
"It was a great game, the team showed its fighting spirit, and we're improving with every day that goes by. We're on an upward trend, and that's a good sign," said Kapanen.
In the 2008 World Championship, they met twice and Finland won both games, the other a quarterfinal, 3-2. In 2009, they played in the quarterfinal again. That time, Team USA won 3-2. At the Olympics, U.S. demolished Finland in the quarterfinal. And tonight, they played for avoiding the relegation round. Who would have thought?
The high stakes nature of the game made for very cautious hockey. Both teams were careful not to make mistakes, because any one of them could be costly.
Also, both teams had surely stressed the importance of the first goal.
Team USA got it, at 3:30 when David Moss got the puck on Finnish blueline, went around a Finland defenceman and sent a pass to the net. A back checking Juhamatti Aaltonen deflected the puck into his own net, past goaltender Petri Vehanen, who had got the nod over Nashville Predators Pekka Rinne.
Both teams tried to get the physical edge early in the game, exchanging checks and hits, never giving an inch.
"This was like a Game 7 in a playoff series so it's important to be relaxed and just get into a groove. Tonight we had that, and we worked hard, and that gets you far," Kapanen said.
Finland outshot Team USA 31-17 in the first two periods, but Scott Clemmensen in the American goal turned most everything away.
He robbed Sami Kapanen from a point-plank range, with a pad save in the first period. Lauri Korpikoski was on a breakaway in the second, but Clemmensen had no problem blocking his slap shot from high slot. In the next shift, it was Antti Pihlström’s turn to get on a breakaway. He decided to make a deke, but that didn’t work, either.
However, the next slapshot did go in. Leo Komarov carried the puck through neutral zone, and ripped a slapshot right after the blueline. The puck went in low on Clemmensen’s glove side.
The third period gave Finland the reward it so desperately wanted. With 18 seconds remaining in Jack Hillen's second period penalty, the Finns got the puck deep into the American zone. Mikko Mäenpää got the puck to Petteri Nummelin on the point, and Nummelin one-timed the puck past Clemmensen, pushing the Americans closer to the relegation round.
"I don't care what the game looks like as long as we win," said Nummelin, smiling.
"I expect us to keep getting better," he added.
The Americans were desperate to tie the game in regulation time, any kind of win would have taken them to the next round. They did create pressure in the Finnish zone, but Vehanen was unflappable in Finland's goal.
When Finland needed its veteran leadership, they stepped up. First Nummelin, then Sami Kapanen, who put the game to bed with 2:02 remaining when he beat Clemmensen with a wrist shot from the slot.
Team USA made one final push, even with T.J. Galiardi in the penalty box for slashing. They tried to get back with five skaters and T.J. Oshie scored a shorthanded goal with 17 seconds remaining. That was as close as they got.
"That was unnecessary, we had just talked about not giving them any space, and that we'd have to be patient, and hold on to the puck, we were on power play, after all," Kapanen said.
The win means that Finland not only advances to the next round, it does so as the winner of Group D.
Team USA will play in the relegation round for its spot in the World Championships top division.
"It is a tough pill to swallow. I wish I had an answer why this happened but I don't," Team USA captain Jack Johnson said.
"I don't think I have ever played in a losing bracket. What is done is done and now we have to win our next three games so the team next year can play in the A pool," he added.