Sports

Host Finns top US to go for gold

It’s hard to believe, but the US has one of the longest title droughts in international sports. It last won an IIHF World Championship tournament in 1933. The Americans won Olympic gold in 1960 (Squaw Valley) and 1980 (Lake Placid), both years when no World Championship was played.

The US has four bronze medals from the last eight tournaments (2013, 2015, 2018, 2021) and can add another one on Sunday.

These Americans deserve credit just for making it to the final four. Coach David Quinn’s squad has dealt with injuries and Covid-19 woes from the get-go this year. They entered this semi-final with only four defensemen playing their natural position. Nick Blankenburg, Caleb Jones, and Jon Merrill were out with injuries, and Jaycob Megna returned home after the 3-0 quarter-final win over Switzerland due to a family emergency. Captain Seth Jones logged a jaw-dropping 31:57 versus Finland.

Austin Watson praised the depleted defense corps: “Those guys are horses for us back there. They were great for us. You know what? It’s a tough spot for them to be in, but every one of them, including the forwards that ended up back there, played great.”

Hoping to take the crowd out of it early, the US grabbed a 1-0 lead at 1:04. Schmidt’s rising shot from the left point beat a surprised Olkinuora high to the stick side. It was the second straight time Finland has fallen behind in a playoff game here. They also trailed Slovakia 2-0 in the quarter-final before rallying to win 4-2.

Abot trailing, Lehtonen said: “Of course it’s not nice. It was a bad first goal, but we’ve been in this situation so many times with these players, and we all know that with one goal we can always come back.”

The Finnish fans stayed keyed up. Loud chants of “Suomi!” echoed through Nokia Arena. A roar went up when IIHF Hall of Fame inductee Kimmo Timonen appeared on the big video cube. Ditto for fellow retired legends like Saku Koivu and Raimo Helminen. Still, the Finns took a while to get their bearings.

Even after Watson took the game’s first penalty for running Vatanen from behind in the Finnish zone, the host team didn’t register its first shot on goal until the 7:39 mark, with nine seconds left in that man advantage. Captain Valtteri Filppula was stopped point-blank by Swayman on a nice Pesonen set-up from behind the net.

The Finns picked up their intensity. With under six minutes left in the first, a kneeling Olkinuora came up big to foil Farrell on a rebound from the slot.

At 16:53, Heiskanen notched the equalizer with a great individual play. He cut in off the side boards with bodies in front and lifted a backhand off the cross bar as the blue-and-white fans erupted.

In 2018, Heiskanen became the seventh player in IIHF history to appear in the World Juniors, Olympics, and Worlds in the same season. This was just the star Dallas Stars’ blueliner’s second goal in IIHF senior competition. Heiskanen also had the eventual winner in a 5-2 qualification round playoff victory over the host Koreans at the 2018 Winter Games.

“It’s great that we have [Heiskanen] here,” said Lehtonen. “He’s an unbelievable player. He skates so well, he sees everything when he’s on the ice, he can move, he can dangle with the puck. It’s a good thing for us.”

The Finns weathered some good US power play pressure at the end of the first period with Atte Ohtamaa off for tripping Jones. They went to the dressing room deadlocked 1-1.

An early second-period hooking minor to Alex Galchenyuk proved costly for the US, as the Finns remained relentless with their offensive zone pressure.

From the center point, Mikko Lehtonen located Manninen in the left faceoff circle, and as Jones sprawled in hopes of blocking the shot, Manninen zinged the puck over Swayman’s glove for a 2-1 lead at 4:11.

“It was a little bit of a broken play,” Manninen said. “Their penalty kill started to give a little bit of pressure and we got a couple of good passes and I had a really good lane to shoot.”

Manninen was also a focal figure when Finland topped the US 4-1 in the group stage. The diminutive Oulu-born sniper led the way there with a goal and two assists.

The Americans weren’t going away without a fight. Farrell cut off the right-side boards past Finnish checkers and flung a high shot down the middle that caught the top corner at 6:52 to make it 2-2.

But the Finns struck back promptly. Assistant captain Marko Anttila got the Finnish forecheck going with his long stick and big body. Moments later, a pinching Vatanen squeezed past Kieffer Bellows’ check on the left side and powered into the left faceoff circle, where he fired the puck through the legs of both Jones and Swayman to restore the Finnish lead at 9:40.

“I think they took advantage a little bit in the second period,” Schmidt said. “They were making sure they got it all the way down to the goal line, grinding our guys down. We couldn’t jump up on the play the way we want.”

In the third period, Finland went to work again with the man advantage after US forward Vinni Lettieri was nabbed for hooking Vatanen on the forecheck. Just seconds after the penalty expired, Finland went up 4-2. Armia sniped one right through Schmidt’s legs from the top of the right faceoff circle, beating Swayman on the short side at 5:03.

“I just tried to shoot kinda between the D-man’s legs, use him as a screen there and it was a good thing that he went in,” said Armia.

Swayman gave his team a chance when he denied Anttila on a great chance from the slot with just over 10 minutes in regulation.

Still trailing by two goals with just under four minutes remaining, Quinn elected to pull the netminder for a sixth skater. The gamble paid off. Gaudette cut the deficit to 4-2 when Matt Boldy set him up from the goal line for a one-timer that whizzed through Olkinuora’s pads. It was Gaudette’s team-high fifth goal of the tournament.

The Americans pulled out all the stops in the dying moments. With Swayman on the bench again, Quinn called his timeout with 50 seconds left to plot strategy. But the Stars and Stripes just couldn’t find that fourth goal.

“I’m disappointed with the result, but proud of the effort,” said Swayman. “It’s tough, but we’ve gotta regroup quickly because there’s still a job to do tomorrow.”

Since the IIHF adopted the playoff system for the World Championship in 1992, the US has never appeared in a gold medal game. It has lost all 11 semi-finals in which it has appeared. Its only previous semi-final encounter with Finland was a 2-1 loss to the eventual silver medalists in Germany in 2001.

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