Sunday, January 3, 2010

USA bids Finland bye-bye

Press Release

SASKATOON – Washington is smiling, Helsinki is crying. With a routine 6-2 win over Finland, the Americans advanced to a semi-final clash with Sweden on Sunday. The Finns will face Russia for fifth place on Monday.

USA – Finland 6-2 (2-0, 1-1, 3-1)

Jerry D'Amigo had a pair for the USA, and Kyle Palmieri, Matt Donovan, Chris Kreider and Danny Kristo added singles. Eero Elo and Iiro Pakarinen replied for Finland.

"They're a talented squad," said D'Amigo of facing Sweden. "We know what they have, but we have a lot more than that. If we work hard, I think we can beat them at their own game."

Vancouver Canucks prospect Jordan Schroeder had three assists, putting him ahead of Jeremy Roenick for the all-time lead in US World Junior Championship points (26). It also gave him sole possession of third place in all-time assists (20), passing Canada's Eric Lindros.

Entering Saturday's second quarterfinal, the Americans had won four of their last five meetings with Finland. The Finns last beat the Americans 4-2 in the 2006 bronze medal game in Vancouver.

"We're glad we walked away from this with a 'W' and two chances at a medal," said American captain Derek Stepan.

Finland simply hasn't been able to score against elite teams in this tournament, despite firing a ton of pucks at opposition goalies. Against Russia, Sweden, and the Americans, the Finns combined for a grand total of three goals.

“We didn’t score again and the Americans played very well," admitted Finnish forward Teemu Hartikainen. "Maybe we have too many of the same kind of players and no snipers. Now we want to beat Russia--they must be very disappointed as well right now.”

In his third tournament start, American goalie Mike Lee outduelled Finland's Joni Ortio as the Finns held a 44-25 shots-on-goal advantage.

"Mike Lee played very well," said Stepan. "He came up big when we needed him to come up big."

It took just 2:14 for the Americans to draw first blood. Jordan Schroeder pulled up inside the blueline and sent a beautiful backhand pass to Philip McRae, who fed Palmieri in front for the tip-in.

Another tic-tac-toe sequence, this time on the power play, gave the USA a 2-0 lead at 6:34. Schroeder set up Donovan perfectly with a goal line pass.

With superior skill and strength, the Americans gave the Finns few quality chances as the game wore on. D'Amigo gave the Americans a three-goal lead with a high shot from the slot.

The crowd of 12,071 roared at 15:17 when Eero Elo burst down the right side, fired a shot at Lee, and converted his own rebound to get Finland on the board.

Just 2:05 into the third period, Kreider notched his USA-leading fifth goal of the tournament with a quick shot from the faceoff circle, putting the game out of reach for Finland.

Pakarinen added one more for Finland with 5:29 left, poking home a loose puck that lay behind Lee, but that was it for the blue-and-white squad's hopes. A late timeout failed to spark a comeback.

In the final minute, D'Amigo potted an empty-netter and Kristo put one more past Ortio to round out the scoring at 6-2. The Finns had outshot the Americans 23-8 in the closing stanza, to no avail.

The fans gave a hearty cheer for Finnish captain Jyri Niemi's name during the pre-game introductions. In his third season with the WHL's Saskatoon Blades, the hard-shooting 19-year-old blueliner plays regularly in this arena.

But after the game, Niemi was devastated by the loss: "At the start of the game, we were really nervous, squeezing our sticks. We made two mistakes and they scored both times. We just couldn't put away our chances. And we allowed way too many odd-man rushes against a fast team like the Americans."

Legendary NHL defenceman Ray Bourque, here to watch his son Ryan compete for the Americans, also got a hand when his face appeared on the Jumbotron.

The Americans now have a shot at their first medal since 2007's bronze, while Finland will finish out of the medals for the fourth straight year.

"The fifth-place game against Russia, we have to find a way," Niemi said. "We have to get some self-respect back. We can't just go in there and play that away. This is the last junior tournament for a lot of the guys, and we want to end our careers with the Finnish junior national team on a winning note."

(Nathan also is a writer for Maineiacs Post to Post and the Maine Hockey Journal. He can be reached at fourniern@students.nescom.edu)

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