It was highly reminiscent of the 2014 Olympic quarter-final between these two nations in Sochi, where the Finns also conceded an opening goal, but bounced back to oust their highly touted neighbors 3-1.
The host Russians gave a full effort at the Ice Palace, but Finland’s team play was superior once again. Finland, which has a perfect record with nine straight regulation victories, will face the winner of the Canada-U.S. semi-final for gold on Sunday night.
“Either way the last game of this tournament will be hard for both teams,” said Finland’s Leo Komarov. “For us, we have to get some rest and come back tomorrow with a committed effort.”
“I just think once the score got to 3-1 we grew in strength,” said Aleksander Barkov. “We defended powerfully, and our goalie helped us a lot, of course. We just tried to get the puck up to their zone as much as we could and keep them at arm’s length.”
Jussi Jokinen had the other Finnish goal, and Sergei Shirokov tallied for Russia.
Finnish starting goalie Mikko Koskinen out-dueled Russia’s Sergei Bobrovsky. Shots on goal favored Russia 29-16.
“We didn’t have the best start, but Koskinen was outstanding and gave us a chance to win,” said Finnish coach Kari Jalonen. “As well, we played with positive energy for the whole game, and these were the two keys to the victory.”
Saturday’s early semi-final also had overtones of the 2007 semis when Finland shocked Russia 2-1 on Mikko Koivu’s overtime goal, dealing the host nation its first defeat on Moscow ice in World Championship history.
Finland has won two previous World Championships (1995, 2011). The Finns are now guaranteed their first medal since taking silver in 2014, where they lost the final to Russia.
They’re one win away from achieving the unprecedented feat of capturing World Junior, U18, and World Championship gold in the same year.
The Finnish youth movement is on fire. In Sochi, a 43-year-old Teemu Selanne led the attack against Russia with two points and scored the winner. Here Aho, an 18-year-old Worlds rookie, was the man of the hour. He and Patrik Laine, the possible number one overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, both played for the World Junior champs in Helsinki in January.
“Our young players are looking good,” said Komarov. “They are proving they can play at this level, and showed everyone what they can do.”
Jalonen’s team blanked the top Russian trio of tournament scoring leader Vadim Shipachyov (16 points), Artemi Panarin (12 points), and Yevgeni Dadonov (11 points). Meanwhile, Finnish leaders Laine and Mikael Granlund, who entered with 11 points apiece, both chipped in assists in the semi-final.
“Shipachyov’s line was obviously one of the best in this tournament, but you’ve also got [Yevgeni] Kuznetsov’s line and [Pavel] Datsyuk’s line,” said Barkov. “They are all really strong combinations. I think we played well and defended well.”
Russia settled for silver last year in Prague, and this is another major disappointment.
“We couldn’t score and we gave up those goals,” said Russia’s Roman Lyubimov. “The Finns didn’t do anything special. We caused our own problems.”
“The key was that they scored on the power play and we didn’t,” added Kuznetsov.
After the Finns got through a tough first period, their defense-first approach staved off Russia’s flashy, frenetic attack.
The Ice Palace was fired up with “Shaibu!” chants from the partisan crowd of 12,215, and coach Oleg Znarok’s squad got the start it wanted. Ivan Telegin came off the side boards and backhanded a pass to Shirokov, who fired a quick shot on goal and slipped between the Finnish defense to bang the rebound past Koskinen at 2:52.
The Finns didn’t get a shot on goal for more than 11 minutes, and were outshot 10-4 in the opening stanza. Koskinen slid across to make a fine save on an onrushing Dadonov near the eight-minute mark.
“We had a lot of scoring chances but we needed to get more goals,” said Znarok. “If we had been able to make it 2-0, it might have been a different game.”
Barkov returned to the Finnish lineup after missing the 5-1 quarter-final win over Denmark with the flu. During Finland’s opening power play, Barkov came close to equalizing on a great chance by the right post.
“We might have come out with a little too much respect for them in the beginning, but we relaxed a little and played better the rest of the game,” said Komarov.
Star Washington Capitals forwards Kuznetsov and Alexander Ovechkin have been limited to a goal and an assist apiece in five games since arriving from the NHL playoffs. Ovechkin electrified the crowd when he zoomed in off left wing early in the second period and crashed to the ice as Koskinen denied him on the doorstep.
Alexei Marchenko went off for hauling down Leo Komarov in the Russian zone, and the Finnish power play drew blood on its second opportunity. Granlund centered it to Aho, who one-timed it past Bobrovsky’s glove at 5:34 to make it 1-1.
On a mid-game power play, the Russians had Finland pinned down in their own zone, but the Finns, led by blueliner Atte Ohtamaa, blocked shots with grim determination. And Russia’s failure to capitalize proved fatal.
Finland jumped into a 2-1 lead at 15:50 on a beautiful exchange between Jokinen and Laine. Jokinen took the puck below the goal line, fed it back to Laine, and then circled out in front of the goal to take the teenage dipsydoodler’s return feed, snapping the puck over the helpless Bobrovksy.
With two minutes left in the middle frame, things worsened for Russia when a backchecking Ovechkin was called for hauling down Esa Lindell. It took Aho just 16 seconds to put Finland up 3-1 at 18:15, backhanding in a loose puck from the crease.
In the third period, the Russians struggled to narrow the gap. With Barkov in the penalty box near the halfway mark of the period, Koskinen stretched out to deny Ovechkin and Datsyuk on back-to-back chances.
Russia called its time-out with 3:43 left and Finland’s defenceman Juuso Hietanen heading to the penalty box for high-sticking. Bobrovsky quickly headed off for the extra attacker.
Telegin fell to the ice and hobbled off to the dressing room after taking a couple of whacks from Ohtamaa on the back of the leg, but no further penalty was assessed. It was all in vain, even though Russia outshot Finland 13-2 in the final stanza.
“We were playing well, even after getting behind early,” said Koskinen. “Good to get a few goals and stay ahead of them and win the game.”
There is some consolation for the hosts. Russia, which won four of the last eight World Championships (2008, 2009, 2012, 2014), still has a shot at capturing its eighth medal in the last 10 years in Sunday’s bronze game.
“We worked hard and when we fell behind we tried even harder, but it just didn’t work out for us today,” said Lyubimov. “We’ll have to rally and try to give our fans something to cheer tomorrow.”
Russia has not won a World Championship at home since 1986 in Moscow in the Soviet era.