BRATISLAVA – The two teams that ended the preliminary round undefeated also marched through in the first two playoff rounds. After tight and exciting semi-final games Finland and the United States will play for gold tonight at 20:00 local time (21:00 Finnish time, 2pm ET). All five games from the main arena will be streamed live on IIHF.com
The two teams haven’t met in the preliminary round. Actually, they haven’t met in the last three World Championships either. The last time Finland and the U.S. went head to head was in the quarter-finals of the 2012 IIHF Inline Hockey World Championship in Ingolstadt, Germany.
After a bad start into the tournament five years ago, the Finns got an undefeated Team USA in the first round and scored a 5-4 upset victory in the quarter-finals en route to a bronze medal. A couple of players from both teams are still here including Lasse Lappalainen, who scored two goals against the Americans five years ago.
This time it looks different. Both teams make a stronger impression and haven’t shown essential weaknesses. Whenever they faced adversity, they came back and ended up as a winner. For Finland that meant beating Sweden a 7-6 shootout victory against the Czechs and two tight wins against Sweden, 6-5 in the preliminary round and a 6-5 overtime win last night’s semi-final.
“It feels amazing. We’re in the finals against the USA, it’s amazing,” said Teemu Lepaus, who scored three goals and gave the blind pass to Sami Markkanen’s overtime goal after a battle at the boards. The 24-year-old Tampere native is now the scoring leader with 10 goals and 10 assists from five games. After a strong second year in Finland’s second ice hockey league Mestis he got signed by top-league team Ilves Tampere for next season.
“It’s special to score a hat trick in such a game. Goal scoring is always fun although I’m normally more of a playmaker.”
He knows that the biggest challenge is yet to come against the record world champion.
“I haven’t seen them play here but they’re a very quick team, we have to be ready for the game,” he said.
Finland will play in the gold medal game for the third consecutive time. A win would mean being back on the throne after having lost the 2015 final to Canada at home in Tampere and the fifth gold in history.
Team USA is the record world championship and aims for the seventh gold and the first since 2013. Veteran player Matt White is second in scoring behind Lepaus with six goals and nine assists. World Championship rookie Jack Combs, who plays professional ice hockey in Germany, is the team’s top goal scorer with nine markers. The Americans (33 goals) together with the Finns (35) have had the biggest offensive production here in Bratislava but they conceded much fewer and had an impressive penalty kill.
John Schiavo was overwhelmed about his team’s comeback win against the Czechs.
“Even if we were down we focused, had our passion throughout the game and the work ethic was through the roof, we won the face-offs and that’s a huge key,” Schiavo said. “That last game was amazing. There’s no better feeling than winning with the guys wearing the same logo. Hopefully we keep this roll on in the final.”
For the 23-year-old, who also plays minor league ice hockey for the FHL’s Danbury Titans, Bratislava has been a great experience.
“I’ve loved it here. It’s my first one and I’m honoured to wear this logo on my chest. It’s been a fantastic trip. Now one more game is left, the one we all came here for to play,” he said.
He knows that it won’t be easy to win gold here from watching Finland.
“They’ve been playing great here. I think they work hard, they work a good system. They’re going be tough to play,” he said.
A win in the final would also mean the fifth gold medal this season for USA Hockey in IIHF competition. The Americans won the world title in the men’s U20 and U18, and in the women’s senior and U18 categories only missing out on gold at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship with the men’s national ice hockey team.
Before the USA-Finland game, the Czech Republic and Sweden will play for bronze at 17:30. Also the Division I medal games will be streamed live and for free on IIHF.com. Slovenia and Latvia play for gold in the Division I tournament and for promotion at 15:00, Great Britain and Australia play for bronze at 13:00.