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Kontiola konquers Russia

Defending champs lose again, Raanta cool as ever

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Petri Kontiola exults after giving host Finland a 1-0 lead versus Russia. Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images

HELSINKI – Home ice pressure doesn’t faze Petri Kontiola. His two goals led Finland to a 3-2 win over Russia, which continued to struggle after its astonishing 2-1 loss to France the day before.

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Kontiola led the KHL playoffs in scoring with 19 points in 25 games for Traktor Chelyabinsk, and he looked eminently comfortable against Russia’s stars.

"I think we've had a good start to the tournament, and we've won games, but I don't think we've played the way we should have," said Kontiola. "But today, we played a good 60-minute game, and that's why we won."

Juhamatti Aaltonen added the eventual second-period winner and an assist for Finland, and Sami Lepistö chipped in two assists.

Russia’s Semyon Varlamov got his second tournament start in goal, with Ilya Bryzgalov sitting on the bench. (Bryzgalov previously beat Latvia and the United States, and Varlamov defeated Germany, while third-stringer Vasili Koshechkin lost to France.)

"This was the toughest game for us in this tournament," said Varlamov. "We played pretty good, but we didn't score, and we lost today."

Netminder Antti Raanta shone in his third game for Finland, which bounced back nicely from its preceding 4-1 loss to the United States. Final shots favoured Russia 36-24.

"It was a sold-out crowd and a game against a great team, so it was tough, and I had to work," Raanta said. "It's not like I can ask the coach if I can go straight home and skip the shower. I definitely need a shower."

Ilya Kovalchuk notched a goal and an assist for Russia, and Alexander Radulov also scored. Kovalchuk's frustration boiled over at the end when he took a five-minute roughing major and game misconduct.

The Russians came in looking to avenge themselves after suffering one of the most unexpected defeats in international hockey history versus France. Defending champion Russia is number one overall in the IIHF World Ranking, while the French are fourteenth. Prior to the debacle, they’d won 13 straight games in regulation dating back to the start of the 2012 tournament.

Now, suddenly, the Russians look quite mortal. After scoring 15 goals in their first three games, they've potted just three in their last two. They weren’t able to kick it into high gear and vent their frustration on Finland, as some expected them to do. Instead, the Finns showed good hustle and poise.

Kontiola, Finland’s scoring leader, made it 1-0 at 3:22 when he moved into the low slot, accepted Aaltonen’s backhanded pass from behind the goal line, and slapped it under the crossbar on Varlamov’s glove side. Finnish fans in the jam-packed Hartwall Arena erupted.

Just after a mid-period interference minor to Ville Viitaluoma expired, Denis Kokarev nearly tied it up, streaking in over the Finnish blue line past the defence and putting a backhand off Raanta’s left post.

At 3:37 of the second period, Radulov got the 1-1 equalizer on the power play, and his cunning was the key. He fed the puck from behind the goal line to Kovalchuk, who waited to pull the trigger until Radulov had scooted around to Raanta’s left. When the shot came, the CSKA Moscow ace gobbled up the rebound and banged it into the open side.

After intense Finnish pressure failed to bear fruit on three straight glorious chances, Kontiola made it 2-1 at 7:21, feeding Lepistö and then cruising through the slot to deflect the defenceman’s blast over a helpless Varlamov’s shoulder.

"I got great passes on both goals," said Kontiola. "Lepistö's pass was perfect, as was Aaltonen's. All I had to do was not miss the net."

Aaltonen went off for hooking halfway through the game, but the Finns maintained their disciplined formation on the penalty kill and didn’t give the Russians anything.

On a Finnish power play, Janne Pesonen sent a perfect pass from the right faceoff to the left, where Aaltonen one-timed it home to make it 3-1 Finland with four minutes left in the second period.

Tensions ramped up as the Russians couldn't click on late-period man advantages. Artyom Anisimov and Ossi Väänänen were sent off for wrestling together deep in the Finnish end.

In the final stanza, the Russians couldn't muster a comeback, despite outshooting the Finns 21-3. When they did get chances, Raanta alternated between steady and spectacular.

There was some nasty stickwork by both teams as the clock ticked down, including Kovalchuk brandishing his blade in the neutral zone and in the vicinity of the Finnish bench.

"I said something to [Kovalchuk], and he slashed a little, but he didn't finish his slash, he missed me," said Lepistö, who was on the bench at the time. "I figured he might do something, but not that he'd do that. Then again, I did provoke him."

Kovalchuk cut the deficit to 3-2 with 1:48 remaining and Varlamov on the bench for an extra attacker. The rebound from captain Ilya Nikulin's blast was corraled by Alexei Tereshenko, who handed it off to Kovalchuk to put it home.

But that's as close as Russia would get, despite pulling its goalie again and getting a late faceoff deep in Finland's zone.

Kovalchuk lost his temper just before the horn, repeatedly cross-checking Pesonen, who had put his stick between the Russian sniper's legs, in front of the Finnish goal before dropping him with a gloved punch. The 2009 World Championship MVP was ejected with a five-minute major, and Pesonen received the same punishment.

Kontiola was Finland's Player of the Game, while Radulov claimed the honours for Russia.

Finland faces Austria next on Saturday, while the Russians face Slovakia on Saturday.

"Russia is a great team, and this boosts our confidence," said Kontiola. "I hope we can keep on playing like this."

"Now we look forward to the game against Slovakia, and it'll be another tough game," said Varlamov.

During the Soviet period, Finland was regularly trounced by the Big Red Machine. In the 21st century, the Finns have played Russia on even terms at the World Championship, winning six times and losing six times (including this game).

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