BUFFALO – Finland defeated Slovakia 6-0 to climb on top of Group A of the IIHF World U20 Championship. USA’s late game vs. Switzerland will decide which team gets the alluring semi-final bye.
Team USA will need a win against Switzerland – either in regulation time or overtime – to claim back first place from Finland.
Erik Haula had a pair of goals for Finland, while Miikka Salomäki, Jyrki Jokipkka, Joonas Danskoi and Valtteri Virkkunen collected singles before a predominantly Canadian crowd which treated the game as an appetizer prior to the Sweden vs. Canada showdown.
Finnish goaltender Joni Ortio collected his second shut-out of the tournament stopping just 17 mostly harmless shots to 43 at the other end. He boasted a 95 percent save percentage prior to the game and finished the preliminary round with a tidy 1.00 goals against average.
“We play better together than last year and our defence is really good,” Ortio praises the teammates in front of him. “Our opponents don’t have many scoring chances against us. That makes it easier for a goalie to play behind them.”
Finland completed the Preliminary Round Group A with three wins and one OT-loss, which came at the hands of Team USA on opening day. Slovakia will try to retain its top division status in the relegation round after posting a preliminary round record three losses and one OT win.
But this Slovak victory might prove very valuable as it was won against Germany on December 27th. As the Germans also go to the relegation round, this win will count in the relegation standings and it gives the Slovaks somewhat of a cushion. They play their opening relegation round game on January 2nd against Norway at Dwyer Arena.
“It was hard to motivate ourselves after the tough loss against Switzerland yesterday,” Dalibor Bortnak admitted after today’s game. “We tried hard, but we didn’t play very well. The next games will be really important for us. We have to rest and get ready for these games and we have to forget about this loss.”
The Slovaks have been involved in relegation anguish in six of the last seven IIHF World U20 Championships, so they know the drill which includes not wasting energy on games that don’t matter. Not even a win against the Finns would have prevented the trip down to the relegation round, and the lack of inspiration showed.
By the time Slovakia had its first shot on goal at the 10-minute mark of the opening period, Finland already had seven--and two goals. The 17-year old Miikka Salomäki scored his second goal of the championship after 100 seconds on a lucky bounce off the shaft of his stick and defenceman Jyrki Jokipakka made it 2-0 after pinching in on a power-play at 6:32.
The game was pretty much done midway through the opening period when Erik Haula – Finland’s lone NCAA collegian – waltzed effortlessly through the Slovak defense and put the puck high over goaltender Juraj Holly to make it 3-0. Finland outshot their halfhearted opponents 17-2 during the first 20 minutes.
Haula repeated the exercise at more or less the same time one period later, with the difference that he now came from the left side and in a short-handed situation, but the result was the same. Haula’s goal made it 5-0 and came a couple of minutes after Joonas Danskoi’s 4-0 goal during a power-play.
“We’ve been battling through four games pretty hard. It has paid off and I’m really proud of our guys,” Haula said after his goals number two and three. “We just have to keep playing the next game as hard as we can. From the game against the U.S. we know that we can beat any team when we play well. People definitely have to take a look at us.”
The game was a nice opportunity for the Finns players to pad their individual stats and make all feel involved. Valtteri Virkunen’s 6-0 goal at the end of the middle period was his first of the championship.
(Nathan can be reached at email@example.com)