Semi-final preview: Finland vs USA
Finland vs USA Prediction: the Suomi to Make It to the Finals of Their Home Tournament
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Two teams from Group B, Finland and the USA, will meet in Saturday’s early semi-final game at Tampere’s Nokia Arena, the same arena where their entire group stage was played.
Finland finished first in the group and the USA finished fourth, but there wasn’t a huge gap between the two. In fact, if the USA had won their head-to-head meeting in the group stage in regulation instead of losing it, the two teams would have finished tied on 16 points.
“I think we deserved to be a higher seed,” said Hartman. “We let a couple games get away so we fell to that fourth spot.”
In Wednesday’s quarter-finals, Finland overcame an early 2-0 deficit to beat Slovakia, while the USA didn’t let its early 2-0 lead get away against previously-unbeaten Switzerland, winning 3-0.
Home ice has been an advantage for the Finns so far in Tampere, where they’ve won seven of eight games in regulation time – the only blemish being a shootout loss to Sweden. The Americans had to make a trip to Helsinki for the quarter-finals, but now they’re back and ready for a rematch
“It's a home atmosphere,” said Hartman. “They've got that new rink they're playing in. There's gonna be a lot of fans. It should be loud. But we're just going to worry about ourselves.”
“It’s very important,” said Finnish forward Niklas Friman. “The crowd here has been amazing through the whole tournament. It’s so nice to see the joy in people’s faces. Of course it’s pressure, but this is top-level sport.”
Finnish forward Hannes Bjorninen said about the Americans: “They try to play physical hockey. They try to hit hard and play straight forward. They shoot a lot. Pretty normal North American hockey.”
Finland and the USA met back on 16 May in each team’s third group-stage game. In that game, Finland built up a 4-0 lead in the second period thanks to three goals on the power play and one at 4-on-4, and eventually won 4-1. It was a physical, emotional affair in which the Finns went 3-for-8 on the power play and the Americans went 0-for-5.
“There were a lot of emotions in the game, lots of penalties on both sides and we capitalized on our power plays pretty well,” Sakari Manninen, who had a goal and two assists, said after the game.
“We just got caught up in the emotions of the game, took too many penalties,” said U.S. captain Seth Jones, heeding a warning for his team heading into the semi-final rematch. “That’s kinda the story of it. Against a power play like this, it’s not easy. It was a 1-1 game without the power-play goals. In the end, we out-shot them. They’re a skilled team, very good, very systematic in what they do defensively. But the main story for us is staying out of the box.”
Ten days later, in the aftermath of his team’s quarter-final win, Finnish captain Valtteri Filppula was careful not to read to much into that one game.
“It’s hard to evaluate our first game with so many penalties. It was basically special-teams practice,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a lot tighter and a lot closer this time so we just want to rest and be as ready as possible.”
It’s quite likely this meeting will be quite different. After all, each team has gone through some changes.
The loss to Finland is so far Strauss Mann’s last start in the U.S. net. Two days after later, the team added goaltender Jeremy Swayman from the Boston Bruins to the roster, and he’s really solidified that position. In five games, Swayman has a save percentage of 96.61, a goals-against average of 0.69 and two shutouts.
The USA also added defenceman John Merrill and forwards Matt Boldy and Ryan Hartman from the Minnesota Wild. Merrill, however, only played a couple of shifts against Great Britain before getting injured, and he was soon joined on the sidelines by Nick Blankenburg. As a result, the Americans have played their last four games with only five defencemen, but have held up remarkably well defensively.
“That shows you what kind of team we have, the resiliency and the effort they give every game,” said Swayman. “It's been a really fun tournament so far, and we're looking forward to more.”
Finland has added three NHLers during the tournament. Forward Markus Granlund from the Nashville Predators was already in the lineup against the USA and had a three-point game. Since then, Dallas Stars defencemen Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell have joined.
In that first meeting with the USA, Jussi Olkinuora’s shutout was broken in the last two minutes on a highlight-reel between-the-legs shot by Alex Galchenyuk. Unfazed, Olkinuora started a new streak two games later and rattled off three straight zeroes to close out the group stage, eventually stretching his shutout streak to 206:44 before being beaten by Slovakia’s Adam Sykora in the first period of the quarter-finals.
Olkinuora is the only goalie in the tournament with better numbers than Swayman – his save percentage is 97.58, his goals-against average is 0.50 and he has four shutouts in six games.
So yeah, Filppula knows what he’s talking about when he says it’s going to be a lot tighter. But each team can score too if the opportunities present themselves.
Leading the Americans in scoring so far with four goals and six points each are 23-year-old Ben Meyers, a University of Minnesota graduate who played five games this season for the Colorado Avalanche, and 25-year-old journeyman centre Adam Gaudette of the Ottawa Senators.
“It's been great so far, personally,” Gaudette said of his offensive production. “It feels good to play in a more relied-on role, a bigger role. That's one of the reasons I really wanted to come and play for this team, to help this team win.”
As for the Finns, they have the dreaded power-play trio of Granlund, Manninen and defenceman Mikko Lehtonen, who leads the team in scoring with nine points. The Americans know from the first meeting what they can do, so staying out of the box will be key.
And let’s not forget the Morko factor. Marko Anttila, Finland’s huge checking-line forward who scored numerous big goals in Finland’s 2019 World Championship victory, came through again with two goals in the quarter-finals against Slovakia to bring his team back to even.
“It’s unbelievable how he shows up in these big games,” said Granlund. It’s great to see and you can obviously see how the crowd loves him. He was such a big part of getting the game tied.
Since the introduction of the playoff system for the 1992 World Championship, the USA and Finland have met eight times in knockout games, with Finland holding a 6-2 advantage. The most recent meeting was in the 2013 bronze-medal game, which the USA won 5-4 in a shootout. The two teams have met in two previous semi-finals, with the Finns winning both times in 2001 (3-1) and 1994 (8-0).
In fact, starting with that 1994 game, the USA has advanced to the semi-finals 11 times. In every one of those 11 games, the Americans have lost and ended up in the bronze-medal game – most recently last year in Riga. The last time the Americans won a medal other than bronze in a World Championship that wasn’t connected to the Winter Olympics was a silver in 1950 in London. Their only gold in a non-Olympic year was 1933 in Prague.
The Finns know something about medal droughts. As successful as they’ve been in recent years, it might be tough to remember that they didn’t win their first World Championship medal of any colour until 1992 in Prague (silver) and won their first gold in 1995 in Stockholm.
In the last 10 World Championships, the Finns have advanced to the final five times, winning gold twice and silver three times. But they’ve never played in a final at home. This semi-final game against the USA is the only hurdle in the way of making that finally happen.
Finland is the favorite of the World Cup as in the last international tournaments, they have always reached the finals, and twice they won the decisive matches. Now Jukka Jalonen's charges preformed excellently in the group stage with six victories and one shootout loss to Sweden taking first place in the group. It seemed that the quarterfinal against Slovakia would be an easy walk but the Finns were trailing 0:2 in the first half. Then, an incredible double by Marko Anttila evened the score, and in the third period they won
The United States is an amazing team that has not won a World Cup since 1960, although they have brought strong lineups sometimes. Still, something has prevented them from winning. Since then, the Americans have changed their roster approach, so now we see young players from the lower North American leagues and lesser-known players from NHL clubs. Nevertheless, for the second year in a row, USA didn't just make the playoffs, but the semifinals instead. This time David Quinn's men beat a tough Swiss team 3:0 in the quarterfinals, winning seven matche.