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Finland takes top seed in Helsinki

Antti Pihlström scores OT winner, Finland to meet Slovakia in QF

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Sakari Salminen's Finland enters the playoff stage as the top seed team in Group H. Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images

HELSINKI – With 1:14 remaining in the overtime, Antti Pihlström beat Kristers Gudlevskis with a wrist shot on a breakaway, leading Finland to a 3-2 win over Latvia, and to the top of the standings in Group H.

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Sakari Salminen scored one and added an assist for Finland, Gints Meija did the same for Latvia.

"We didn’t play as good today. I don’t know what was wrong. They had a lot of penalties, but we couldn’t score. After that our rhythm went bad, and we only had two lines that were hot," said Pihlström.

Latvia was playing for a better placement, Finland for a group win, but it wasn’t always obvious as Latvia battled through several penalties, and played determined hockey.

"You can’t just go out and give up on the game. Every game counts. It doesn’t matter how you’re going to end up in the standings.

"Finland’s a good team and they’re one of the favourites to win the whole thing. We worked hard and played well defensively. I think it’s good for us that we got at least one point. Maybe we could do better," said Latvia's Arturs Kulda.

Finland got off to a great start, thanks to two Latvian penalties, but Finland’s first line couldn’t get the puck in tonight, like they have previously in the tournament.

Back at full strength, Latvia played the puck quickly from the own zone to the offensive blue line. Andris Dzerins carried the puck into the Finnish zone, and even with a Finnish forward backchecking him, he could send a nice pass to his right, and Gints Meija one-timed the puck to the back of the net, beating Antti Raanta in Finland’s goal high on the glove side, at 8:19.

Sakari Salminen tied the game in the next shift after Lauri Korpikoski shook a Latvian defenceman from his back behind the Latvian net, and sent a backhand saucer to the slot. Salminen fired a wrist shot that beat Kristers Gudlevskis at 9:18.

Finland had four power play opportunities in the first period, and while Latvia’s penalty kill worked well, it was obvious that they were pushing their luck, and would have to stay out of the box if they wanted to win the hockey game.

Latvia managed to do that better in first half of the second period, and even got a power play of their own. But by the halfway point, Finland had had two more power plays. Latvia killed off the first one, and just as the announcer said that the teams were playing on full strength, Arturs Kulda took a tripping minor.

And the sixth time proved to be the charm for Finland. Sakari Salminen played the puck to Mikael Granlund - playing his first game in the tournament -  who fired a laser beam top-shelf from the faceoff dot, at 10:25.

"He’s a really nice person, a great guy to have in the locker room around the guy. And he’s a really good hockey player – a lot of skill, a lot of vision. He adds a lot to the second power play unit," Ossi Väänänen said of the Minnesota Wild forward who arrived in Finland on Sunday.

Latvia got off one situation with just a scare. Gudlevskis came all the way to the faceoff circle to stop a shot, and when a Latvian defenceman tried to clear the puck after Korpikoski’s shot, it hit Salminen’s shin pad and bounced in, but was deemed a kick in a video review.

Finland outshot Latvia 21-12 in the first two periods.

In the third, Latvia finally managed to stay out of the box, and could push Finland in the final minutes of the period. Halfway through the period, Finland hadn’t been credited with just one shot.

And with 3:47 remaining, Roberts Jekimovs - who played in the Finnish league this season - one timed Meija’s pass through Raanta’s five-hole to tie the game at 2-2.

Finland did get another power play opportunity in the last minute, but it dried up when Juuso Hietanen was sent to the penalty box just 30 seconds later, and the game went into overtime.

"Sometimes you’re a hero, sometimes you’re not. Now I have to go get some sleep and forget this game and be ready on Thursday," said Finland's goaltender Antti Raanta.

Latvia pushed Finland to their heels, and kept the puck in the Finnish zone for most of the overtime. But then Pihlström struck.

"They had a long shift, and I got a half-breakaway there. I just shot it high and it went in," he said.

Sometimes you're a hero.

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