HELSINKI – Bold moves sometimes pay off. The Americans started World Championship rookie John Gibson in goal versus host Finland, and rode his 31 saves and a Craig Smith hat trick to a 4-1 win on Wednesday.
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The 19-year-old Gibson looked just as poised and professional as when he was named Best Goalie and tournament MVP during the U.S.'s 2013 World Junior gold medal run in Ufa, Russia.
"Any time you can represent your country and win, it's a huge honour," said Gibson. "Tonight was a big game, playing Finland in Finland. We just wanted to play our game and get a win."
Gibson, a graduate of USA’s Hockey’s National Team Development Program, also backstopped the Americans to World U18 gold in 2011.
Smith, a third-time World Championship participant (each year since 2011), had his first three-goal performance at this level. It was a familiar setting for the 23-year-old Nashville Predator, who played eight games in Finland with KalPa Kuopio during the NHL lockout.
"It was great," said Smith. "It was a really nice crowd, very lively, nothing I didn’t expect after being here last year. You just try to weather the storm a little bit."
Finland’s Antti Raanta got his second tournament start and made 21 saves.
"We had a good start, but that's about it," said Petri Kontiola, the Finnish scoring leader, who was held pointless.
It’s usually a tight, physical battle when these two nations clash, and this was no exception at the boisterous Hartwall Arena with 12,484 fans on hand.
Stephen Gionta also scored for the United States, and captain Paul Stastny and David Moss added two assists apiece. Jarno Koskiranta scored for Finland.
The Finns next face defending champion Russia on Friday. The last time these two nations met at the World Championship was last year in Helsinki, when the Russians prevailed 6-2 in the semi-finals.
The Americans get two days off before taking on France on Saturday.
Finland opened the scoring at 5:53 when Koskiranta rushed to the net, robbing defenceman Jeff Petry of a bouncing puck, and backhanded it home.
Hostilities escalated just before the eight-minute mark when USA forward Ryan Carter ran over a wandering Raanta behind the goal line and Ilari Melart immediately jumped on him. The two both got double minors for roughing, but Carter got an extra two for interference. The subsequent Finnish power play, however, was ineffective.
The U.S. made it 1-1 at 17:36. David Moss stickhandled into the Finnish zone on the left side, getting past blueliner Janne Jalasvaara, and slapped the puck toward the front of the net, where Smith tipped it home.
The goal ended Raanta’s shutout streak at 77:36. The 23-year-old, who led Ässät Pori to this year’s SM-Liiga championship, made his first World Championship appearance with a 2-0 shutout versus Slovakia.
Both teams had their chances early in the second period. Tim Stapleton got loose on a breakaway just over two minutes into the second period, but fired high and wide. Gibson was there to say no when Teemu Laakso hammered a drive from the center point on a Finnish power play.
The teams continued to exchange man advantages, but play became cautious and there were few golden offensive opportunities.
With under two minutes left in the middle frame, Gibson nearly got caught on a Juhamatti Aaltonen wraparound attempt, but slid back over in time to get his glove on it.
"[Gibson] was the reason it stayed at 1-1," said Stastny, "That first goal [for us] was huge. Once you get on the board, and play in a hostile environment, it settled us down a little, and made us relax."
At 3:32 of the third, Smith one-timed home a Stastny set-up from the right faceoff circle to give the Americans a 2-1 lead on the power play. Raanta was partially screened on the play.
A few minutes later, Gibson made a fine recovery save, allowing a puck to bounce off him to the open left side of the net, but then foiling a diving Antti Pihlström's attempt to push it across the goal line.
The Americans thought they'd gone up 3-1 near the eight-minute mark. Danny Kristo's quick shot got past Raanta high to the stick side, but video review showed it simply went off the post.
Past the midpoint of the third, Gibson stacked the pads to deny Sakari Salminen on a partial breakway. Moments later, Nate Thompson fed Stephen Gionta cross-ice on the rush and the Americans had their two-goal lead.
The Finns called a timeout and pulled Raanta for the extra attacker with 2:49 left in the third, but couldn't narrow the two-goal gap. Smith completed his hat trick with an empty-netter with 42 seconds left.
"We had our chances, but the US buried their chances better," said Finland's Veli-Matti Savinainen.
Finland’s lone NHLer, Lauri Korpikoski of the Phoenix Coyotes, sat this game out with a cold. He is expected to return against Russia.