If anyone turned this game off with about five minutes to go in the third period thinking Team USA had the win over Team Finland in the bag, they made a terrible choice. For a pre-tournament game, this was about as entertaining as you could possibly get. It was back-and-forth, had a few lead changes, and had action that lasted right up until the final buzzer.
The game took overtime to decide, and Finland ultimately prevailed 4-3, and there were a couple of defining moments that led us there. From the Finnish perspective, let’s take a closer look at what made this game what it was.
Major Penalties Turn the Tide
The first period, more specifically the first half of the first period, was complete and utter domination by the Finns. They came out of the gate firing shots from all angles at American goaltender Drew Commesso and got on the board early courtesy of a goal from Kasper Simontaival. The puck seemed to stay in the Americans’ defensive zone, and it was all Finland. Perhaps it was rust on the American side, but you had to like the start of the game from a Finnish perspective.
Midway through the first period, it seemed like someone flipped a switch, and everything changed. Ruben Rafkin was questionably ejected from the game, and the Americans were sent on a power play for five minutes. They didn’t score on the man advantage, but they did tie the game shortly after that. It was a poor mistake from Roni Hirvonen after setting up Tanner Dickinson with a clear shot from the slot. He made no mistake, beating Leevi Meriläinen cleanly low glove side.
Through the second period, things remained square on the scoresheet, and neither team found a goal, but the Americans dominated the period. The start of the third period brought a goaltending change for both teams. Joel Blomqvist came in for the Finns, and Dylan Silverstein came in for the Americans. Just nine seconds into the period, Brett Berard sniped one past Blomqvist, and they quickly chased it with a weak goal by Dominic James.
Suddenly, the Finns were on the back foot and needed to find their way back into the game. That way came courtesy of Red Savage being assessed a match penalty, giving Finland a chance to work on the power play for the final minutes of the game. Not only would they tie the game, but they would also score on the power play in overtime to win their first and last pre-tournament game by a score of 4-3.
Kasper Simontaival Back With a Vengance
Leading the charge offensively for the Finns was Simontaival, who is back for a second go at the World Juniors. He was a third-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and is slated to be a key member of the Finnish forward core. In last year’s tournament, Simontaival scored seven points in seven games, including four goals, but this time around, he brings with him more experience and more tools in the toolbox.
He was without question the best forward on the afternoon, but playing alongside Hirvonen and Juuso Mäenpää allowed him to play to his full potential. Simontaival’s numbers with his club team this season won’t jump off the page and make you take note as some of the players playing in the Canadian Hockey League or college hockey would, but he is playing in Finland’s top league, Liiga.
He showed that he should be considered one of the most dangerous players in this year’s tournament. He is a creative player offensively, can shoot the puck, and can make just about any play you could ask him to make. When he was on the ice, good things seemed to happen. He scored multiple points on the night and was a large reason for the success the Finns saw for portions of the game. If he can keep up this pace, Finland will be grinning from ear to ear.
Leevi Meriläinen Impresses
The transition from playing in Finland to playing with the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs hasn’t been easy for Meriläinen, who has struggled at times this season. Recently, however, it has felt like he is starting to come out of his shell and live up to the hype that surrounds him. The Ottawa Senators’ third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft has been on the upswing and has won the starting job in the Finnish crease over Blomqvist.
On Thursday night, Meriläinen stood on his head while the Americans pressured and threatened to take control of the game in the second period. He was the thing standing between the USA and a large lead in a game that Finland had completely lost control of. When things got chaotic in the defensive zone, Meriläinen was there to take the pressure off his defense.
Meriläinen was lifted in favor of Blomqvist before the third period started to allow both goaltenders to take some reps before the games begin to matter, but the feel of the game completely changed when the switch was made. There’s a reason why Senators fans are so excited about their young goaltending prospect, and they should expect to see the best of Meriläinen in this tournament.
Good Start, Issues to Fix
It’s always great when you can start the World Juniors with a win, even if it does come in what is ultimately a meaningless game. The reality for Finland is that there is a lot to like, but there is also a lot they need to sort out before the medal rounds. They will have a couple of games to iron out those issues, but the good news for them is they have proven to have the resolve to battle adversity when it strikes. They tend to be an issue in the medal rounds, and you shouldn’t expect anything different from them at this tournament.
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Currently a journalism student at Algonquin College in Ottawa, I have always had a passion for the OHL and the Ottawa 67’s in particular. I have been attending games since I was young, and being involved with sports has always been a dream of mine. Sports writing fits perfectly into that. You can also find me talking and writing other sports (primarily Canadian football) on my website 13thmansports.ca!