BUFFALO – Team USA started their defence of the World U20 Championship title with a win, but they needed overtime against Finland. Nick Bjugstad scored the winner 3:08 into OT.
"This is the biggest goal I have scored so far in my career," said the University of Minnesota forward. "Definitely a big goal, for me and the team."
Bjugstad got the puck at the centre ice with two minutes left of the four-on-four overtime, cut across the blueline and shot the puck between the Finnish defenseman legs.
"I used him as a screen," said Bjugstad. "I don't think that I would have scored had the goalie seen the puck."
Bjugstad's marker was a big relief for Team USA as this wasn't as easy as the gold-medal-favourite Americans maybe were hoping for.
Finland is not a team that many observers predict will even compete for a medal, but they fought well and tied the game with seven minutes remaining through Iiro Pakarinen, who scored on a rebound after a good rush and shot by Erik Haula.
Team USA, with eight returnees from last year's gold medal squad, had several good scoring chances as time was running out, but goaltender Joni Ortio was nothing short of excellent and his exploits forced overtime.
Nick Bjugstad won the game for the defending champs when he scored on a rush after 3:08 of overtime. Bjugstad let a low shot go from inside the blueline and the puck trickled through the legs of the Finnish goalie, which probably was Ortio's only mistake of the game.
A mistake that cost the Finns a point.
The Americans came to the game with five wins in the last six games against Finland, who had their last win vs. the U.S. in 2006.
The defending world champions broke the standstill with 66 seconds left of the first period when defenceman Justin Faulk one-timed a power-play shot from the point. It was a well-deserved lead after USA basically didn’t let the Finns out of their own zone during two late first-period penalties.
Finland had difficulties in applying any sustained pressure against Jack Campbell’s goal and even with John Ramage penalized it was the United States, who produced the best chance, but Jason Zucker couldn’t finish the two-on-one break.
From the very beginning it looked quite obvious that the Finns are badly missing injured forward star Mikael Granlund, who already is a dominating player in the Finnish pro SM-Liiga with HIFK Helsinki and a Minnesota Wild prospect.
But after producing a series of very good opportunities midway through the game, Finland took advantage of some very sloppy action by the American defence. Jack Campbell failed to clear the puck behind his net and Jerry D’Amigo turned the puck over a few seconds later which led to Joonas Nattinen’s equalizer at 13:50.
Nattinen scored from close range, assisted by Toni Rajala, who was the one who stripped D’Amigo the puck off.
But the tournament favourites regained the lead on their next possession and also this goal came as a result of a defensive turnover when blueliner Tommi Kivisto failed to clear the puck along the boards. Jason Zucker jumped at the give-away and put the puck high to the short side behind Ortio.
Teams exchanged great chances early in the third period. The Finns Joel Armia and Toni Rajala missed a double-chance right in front of Campbell seconds before Kyle Palmieri could not convert on a breakaway despite having Ortio down and beaten.
Palmieri drew a penalty on the play and Jeremy Morin seemed to have scored a legitimate power-play goal, but it was disallowed as Nick Bjugstad made accidental contact with the Finnish goalie.
Both teams are back in action on Tuesday when the U.S. takes on Slovakia while the Finns play the Swiss.
NOTE: U.S. forward Brock Nelson left the game late in the third period with a left shoulder injury.
(Nathan can be reached at email@example.com)