Date: January 2, 2017

Finns win relegation opener

Joona Luoto ja Mareks Mitens nokikkain - ei maalia.

Lucas Aykroyd IIHF.com

Kristian Vesalainen broke a third-period tie as Finland edged Latvia 2-1 to kick off the best-of-three relegation series in Montreal on Monday.

Vesalainen’s long shot with 11 minutes left deflected in off defender Deniss Smirnovs, and the Finns celebrated with relief.

“I just shot the puck to the net and I don’t know what happened,” said Vesalainen. “Pretty lucky goal.”

The underdog Latvians allowed a tournament-worst 29 goals in four group stage games, but hung tough here to keep this one close. Finland outshot Latvia 45-24, and Latvian starting goalie Marek Mitens was tremendous.

“It’s not easy when you have just one goal after 40 shots or something like that,” said Finnish captain Olli Juolevi. “Those guys got more confidence and their goalie was super-hot after that. But the good thing is we finished the job.”

Like Latvia, the snake-bitten Finns scored six goals in group play, also a tournament low. The Finns won gold at last year’s tournament in Helsinki, and originally expected to compete in the quarter-finals. However, they opened with three regulation losses to the Czechs, Danes, and Swedes, and were doomed to the relegation round after Switzerland’s 5-4 shootout win over Denmark.

In a surprising move, coach Jukka Rautakorpi was fired before Finland’s game against Switzerland and replaced by Jussi Ahokas, who coached Finland to U18 gold in April.

Game Two goes Tuesday at the Bell Centre. Game Three is Thursday (if necessary).

Villi Saarijarvi also scored for Finland. Maksims Ponomarenko replied for Latvia.

Asked about coach Erik Miluns’s message to the team, Mitens said: “They were champions last year but they’re not this year. So we’ve got to play on the same level.”

The Latvians came out aggressively, but the Finns soon picked up the tempo. Near the five-minute mark, Henrik Borgstrom and Juuso Valimaki hit posts back-to-back. At 7:43, Saarijarvi stepped in from the point on the power play and wired a high wrister past Mitens for a 1-0 lead.

Midway through the first period, Mitens made a nice in-close save off Julius Nattinen off the rush. He also foiled Janne Kuokkanen, who split the Latvian defence and tried to sift a backhand through the five-hole. Finland outshot Latvia 21-11 through 20 minutes and could easily have led by more, with two late power plays.

“We knew they were going to play pretty defensively,” said Juolevi. “They were trapping a lot in the neutral zone.”

Latvia tied it up at 4:37 of the second period. Ponomarenko’s shot from the blue line whizzed past Finnish goalie Veini Vehvilainen’s glove. It was the first goal of the tournament for the 19-year-old defenceman, who plays for Lorenskog IK in Norway.

Next, it was Finland’s turn to parade to the penalty box, but Latvia couldn’t find the go-ahead goal, even with a long 4-on-3 man advantage.

In the third period, Nattinen and Joona Luoto misfired on a great odd-man rush chance near the six-minute mark. Shortly after Vesalainen’s go-ahead goal, Mitens grabbed an Eeli Tolvanen shot that nearly trickled over the goal line with 8:13 left.

The Latvians got one final gasp with 12 seconds left when Aapeli Rasanen was sent off for cross-checking Eduards Tralmaks in the Finnish zone. But even with Mitens pulled for the extra attacker, they couldn’t cash in.

Mitens stayed optimistic post-game: “We’re feeling confident. It’s only one game. It doesn’t matter. We’ve still got two games left. We’re gonna beat them in two games. That’s it.”

Finland is the first defending World Junior champion in history that has had to play relegation games. The Finns’ previous worst tournament finish was seventh (2000, 2009, 2013, 2015).

Newly promoted Latvia is playing in its sixth elite World Juniors since 2006. The Latvians managed to avoid relegation twice before, in 2009 and 2012.

“That’s our mission to stay in the highest group,” said Latvia’s Tomass Zeile. “If we would knock Finland out, that would be really big, to beat last year’s champions. For next year, to keep progressing for the 98’s and 99’s, to keep investing in hockey in the country, that’s huge.”

WJC 2017 Quarter-Finals Preview

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By Jeff Langridge – The Hockey Writers

Sweden vs Slovakia

Sweden’s Record: 4-0-0-0

Slovakia’s Record: 1-0-0-3

Two things that will help you in a tournament like this are having the top scorer and the best goaltender. Sweden has both. Alex Nylander has been an absolute force for them, scoring four goals and adding five assists for nine points in four games. Felix Sandstrom only allowed four goals in the three games, giving him a save percentage of .939.

There was never a time where Sweden looked to be in trouble. They scored 18 goals and only allowed six in the entire tournament. They never won a game by less than two goals. They are heavily favoured and it looks like they will an easy bet to make it to the Gold Medal Game.

Slovakia defeated Latvia in their third game to earn their way to the quarters. However, they looked horrible in their first two games. They lost 5-0 to Canada and 5-2 to the United States to open the tournament. They only had six shots in their loss to Canada and haven’t fared better since. They played okay against Russia, but still lost 2-0. The odds will obviously be against them.

Denmark vs Russia

Denmark’s Record: 1-1-1-1

Russia’s Record: 2-0-0-2

Denmark was another story of the tournament. Their victory over Finland was a shocker and opened up a lot of eyes. Then they came back to beat the Czech Republic in overtime. They did lose to the Swiss in a shoot-out, but earning at least a point in three out of four games had to feel good for them.

Unfortunately for them, Russia beat Slovakia and will now face the Danes. Let’s just say the Slovaks would have been a much better opponent for them. Russia has lost twice in the tournament, but they were to the USA and Canada. While Denmark might be the Cinderella of this tournament, they’re going to need another fairy godmother in order for their run to continue.

The line of Kirill Kaprizov, Alexander Polunin and Mikhail Vorobyov has been the best of the tournament by far. Kaprizov has is tied for second in scoring with eight points, five of which are goals. In fact, three Russians are in the top 10 of scoring as Vorobyov as well as Yegor Rykov each have six points. Containing them has to be the top defensive priority for Denmark.

USA vs Switzerland

USA’s Record: 4-0-0-0

Switzerland’s Record: 0-2-0-2

If we’re going on how the teams looked in the preliminary round, we’re probably going to see a Sweden vs. USA final. While the Americans did beat Latvia 6-1 and Slovakia 5-2, it was the games against Russia and Canda that showed the reason that the US can win this tournament.

They absolutely locked it down defensively against those two teams.  They were really good at denying entrance to their defensive zone, and when the opposition did get through, they were blocking shots like that was all they did. Colin White even made a diving save against Canada when Joseph Woll was out of position. It also helps that both Woll and Tyler Parsons have performed well in their two games, ranking second and third in save percentage in the tournament.

Switzerland has yet to win a game in regulation, something that doesn’t bode well for them. Goalie Joren van Pottelbergjhe was fifth in save percentage but that might not be enough. They need another great performance from Nico Hischier to stand a chance. That being said, the Swiss always manage to be a thorn in the top teams’ sides so who knows what will happen.

Canada vs. 3A) Czech Republic

Canada’s Record: 3-0-0-1

Czech Republic’s Record: 1-0-2-1

Canada was riding high through the first three games. They had beaten Russia 5-3 to start the tournament. They shutout the Slovakia 5-0 and then they demolished the Latvians 10-2. Going into the game against the USA on New Years Eve, it looked like Canada was the better team. That was not the case in the game, however, as they went to lose 3-1.

The good news about that loss is that it put them in the position to face the Czech Republic. Canada faced them twice in the lead-up to the actual tournament and won them by a total of 13-0. Even with the loss going into the quarters, they have to feel confident knowing that they have dominated against them so far.

The Czechs were looked at as a darkhorse by some going into the tournament so it wasn’t shocking that they beat Finland to open the tournament. They followed that up by coming back to force overtime before losing to Switzerland and giving up the lead and losing in overtime to Denmark. They then faced Sweden to finish off the preliminary round and lost 3-0.

They now face off against another tough opponent in Canada. As said before, they haven’t exactly fared well against the Maple Leaf recently. It will be a tough game for sure.