Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Puljujarvi line powers Finns

Tournament scoring leader Jesse Puljujarvi (10 points) put on another dominant performance, leading the way with a goal and three assists. His linemates were fantastic as well. Sebastian Aho chipped in two goals and an assist, while Patrik Laine contributed a goal and two helpers.

"It’s unbelievable to watch those guys play," said Finnish captain Mikko Rantanen. "It’s a very good line. I think after three games, it’s the best line in the tournament."

Wednesday was an important step forward for coach Jukka Jalonen’s crew after a disappointing 6-4 loss to Russia in their previous match.

Finland, stacked with offensive talent this year, is questing for its fourth gold medal of all-time, having previously won in 1987, 1998, and 2014.

Roope Hintz had a goal and an assist, and Aleksi Saarela, Kasperi Kapanen, and Kasper Bjorkqvist added singles for Finland. Vili Saarijarvi had three assists, and Olli Juolevi added two assists.

Matus Suke, Radovan Bondra, and Patrik Sukel scored for Slovakia.

Kaapo Kakhonen earned the win in goal for Finland, which outshot Slovakia 48-28.

"I think we played a pretty good game today, but I think we can still play better for 60 minutes," said Rantanen. "Start the game with good focus and try to get the first goal. If you score the first goal, you get the momentum and you have the crowd behind you."

Finland currently sits third in Group B behind Russia and the Czech Republic, while Slovakia is fourth. The Finns finish their group slate against the Czechs on New Year’s Eve, and the Slovaks take on the Russians.

Of facing the Czechs, Kapanen said: "It’s going to be a tough one, but I think we’re ready for the challenge. In a way, they’re kind of the same as the Slovaks, but we know that they’re a little bit better."

This battle got off to a tough physical start with plenty of board-rattling hits.

Four minutes into the game, a hush fell over the crowd when defenceman Eetu Sopanen was injured in the Slovak zone. Favoring his left leg, he was helped off to the dressing room.

The Slovaks opened the scoring at 9:50 on the power play. With a battle for the puck in front of the Finnish net, Matej Palocko poked it to an unguarded Sukel to Kahkonen’s right and he fired it home.

Just over two minutes later, Slovakia buzzed the net and Bondra made it 2-0, to the dismay of the crowd of 12,723. The play was video-reviewed and the goal stood.

"Obviously you don’t want to start a game like that, but I don’t think at any point the team thought that we weren’t going to come back," said Kapanen.

The Finns struck back on the power play with 4:45 left in the opening stanza. Off a draw in the Slovak zone, Aho floated into the right faceoff circle and teed up an emphatic one-timer that beat netminder Adam Huska cleanly.

Midway through the game, the Slovaks got a big chance to extend their lead when Kakhonen was penalized for delay of game for shooting the puck over the glass. Kahkonen redeemed himself by shutting the door, including a stellar glove save on a point-blank Sukel slapper from the slot after defencemen Joni Tuulola handed away the puck.

"Obviously when the goalie makes a save like that, it brings you energy," said Kapanen. "It just shows that he really wants to win. After that, I think we started playing better."

The Finns finally got the 2-2 equalizer at 14:07. Saarela went to the front of the net and banged in the rebound from Olli Juolevi’s center point drive. Now the arena was alive with joy.

With 1:22 left in the middle frame, Hintz gave Finland its first lead of the night. Saarijarvi fired the puck off the back boards from the right point, and Hintz was perfectly positioned to bang it in on the open side.

Puljujarvi showed off his power game on a back-breaking goal just 28 seconds into the third period. He outmuscled two Slovaks on the side boards and worked a give-and-go with Laine in the corner. His shot just squeezed past Huska and over the line.

At 2:41, Finland stretched its lead to 5-2 on Aho's second of the night as he backhanded a loose puck from the slot past Huska.

The Slovaks used their timeout to regroup, and it paid dividends when Patrik Maier cut the deficit to 5-3 at 5:27. But it was too little, too late.

At 11:52, Laine made it 6-3 Finland, getting the puck after Aho won a faceoff in the Slovak zone and whipping a shot from the slot past the Slovak goalie's blocker.

Kasperi Kapanen ended his scoring drought 38 seconds later with a shot that found the top corner after deflecting off a Slovak defender.

"It felt pretty good," said Kapanen. "I’ve had a lot of chances and it hasn’t been going in. I’m just trying to tell myself to shoot as much as possible."

Slovak coach Ernest Bokros decided to give Huska a break, yanking him in favour of backup goalie Stanislav Skorvanek.

It made no difference. Bjorkqvist rounded out the Finnish onslaught, converting a rebound with 2:18 left to make it 8-3.

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