It clinched a memorable victory for a Finland roster that might lack the star quality of its NHL-heavy rivals in the last four in Bratislava, but which has played itself into a position to repeat its Slovakian gold medal triumph of 2011.
“We’ve believed in ourselves all tournament,” said Anttila. “I don’t know if anyone else has, but the way we’re playing we can beat any team in this competition. I’d like to think we’ve got one more win left in us.”
In a tournament where Russia’s offense has written its own headlines, Finland had done its homework. Jukka Jalonen, who has spells behind the bench at SKA and Jokerit on his resume, set his team up to frustrate the Russians. Step one was jamming the radar between Nikita Gusev and Nikita Kucherov, the most dangerous duo in the championship so far. Step two was ensuring that Capitals connection between Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov did not click into gear and deliver the anticipated scoring power in place of Russia’s principle threat. Finland’s game wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective: Jalonen’s team outshot for much of the game and only allowed Russia to really press in the closing moments when Vasilevsky left his net for another skater.
Russia was left lamenting missed chances. Kirill Kaprizov said: “We needed to score. You can’t win a game with no goals. We had plenty of chances but we couldn’t take them. [Goalie Kevin] Lankinen was great for them, he saved them so many times.”
Head coach Ilya Vorobyov added: “We needed to get more pucks to the net. When we had the extra skater at the end I would have liked to see more shots.”
However, the Finns arguably the more dangerous moments, with Vasilevsky showing great strength and determination to hold off teenage wunderkind Kaapo Kakko after the TPS Turku youngster got the puck onto the goal line but couldn’t force it into net. Finland also went close early in the second period when Niko Ojamaki dinged one off the Russian post.
Russian defenseman Mikhail Sergachyov, meanwhile, felt that the game was there for Russia to win. “Today we went out prepared, we were confident in our game,” he said. “We had a couple of turnovers, they got a couple of chances but I don’t think they did anything special. They were just solid on defence. Maybe they outshot us, but they were on the outside. They didn’t create any real danger. They got a lucky bounce on their goal and that was the difference.”
Finland has some history of frustrating Russia in major tournaments. Last time the Worlds came to Bratislava, the Finns defeated Vyacheslav Bykov’s Russians at the semi-final stage. Four years earlier, in 2007, it was a similar story in Moscow and history repeated itself in the 2016 semi-final in the Russian capital. In between there was also the painful 1-3 loss in the Olympic quarter-final in Sochi.
Finnish head coach Jalonen explained that this latest triumph for the Leijonat stemmed from disrupting Russia’s fluid offensive game. “It was a big win for us and for Finnish hockey,” he said. “It was an even game and we managed to push the Russians out of their comfort zone, we didn’t let them play so much with the puck. It was good that they couldn’t do all the things we know they are capable of.”
Russia’s opponent in Sunday afternoon’s bronze-medal game will be the Czech Republic. The teams already met in the group stage, with Russia winning 3-0. However, Milos Riha’s team will be determined to finish the competition on a high and end a medal drought dating back to 2012.
The final on Sunday evening will pit Finland against Canada after the Canadians beat the Czechs 5-1. These teams met in the first game of the tournament in Kosice, with Kaapo Kakko scoring two in a 3-1 Finnish win. A repeat of that outcome would see Finland collect its third World Championship gold, having won on its previous appearance in Bratislava. Canada could win its first gold since victory in Moscow in 2016. On that occasion the Finns were runners-up.