PARDUBICE – On Saturday evening Canada and Finland will face off for the right to lift the 2014 IIHF Inline Hockey World Championship trophy. For Finland, it’s a chance to win it all after over a decade without tasting gold, while Canada looks to cement its place on top of the inline hockey world by taking home its third championship.
For Canada, the road to the final started out a bit bumpy, surviving a close encounter with Germany in its opening game before moving on to face Finland. Finnish forward Kim Stromberg netted two goals in the third period to put away the Canadians 5-3.
"We gave them too much time and space today," said Canada head coach Jason Stephens after that game. "But to be honest this is the best Finnish team I have seen in the last four years, they are going to be tough to beat."
Stephens’ words proved prophetic, as Finland tore through the preliminary and playoff rounds, defeating 2013 silver medallists Sweden twice and raking up wins over Canada, Great Britain, and Germany to stay undefeated so far in this year’s tournament.
“They’re rolling, they’ve got a great team this year and they’re very well-coached,” said Stephens. “I anticipate a very good game.”
The Canadians finished the preliminary round in third place after losing 5-4 to Sweden, but then turned into the cardiac kids in the playoffs, twice snatching victory from the jaws of defeat during two consecutive shootout victories against the host Czechs and 2013 defending champions USA.
The team is led by captain Chris Terry and forward Thomas Woods, who together have combined for 20 points in five games at the 2014 Inline Worlds.
“(Thomas) Woods, (Dave) Hammond, (Chris) Terry,” said Finnish head coach Timo Nurmberg when asked which of the Canadian players he felt his team needs to shut down in order to win. “But they’re all talented and we have to be ready, we know that we beat them once, but it’s going to be a close game.”
Both teams agree that, even though the Inline tournament is only a week-long, these will be two different Canadian and Finnish squads playing for gold on Sunday from the ones that faced each other in the preliminary round.
“I think we’re a different team than we were that game, I know it seems like forever ago and it’s just an eight-day tournament but that’s how it feels,” said Terry. “We were still fresh, getting to know each other and how to play together, now we’ve come together a lot in the past two games.”
Canada, which has no players among the top five scorers in the tournament, has relied on timely scoring and great goaltending to get it to this point, but also on very solid pregame preparation from Stephens, who employed a fast-paced, attacking strategy that was the key to defeating the Americans in the semi-final.
“We’ll have our game plan going in, it helps that we played (Finland) before,” said Terry. “I think it’ll be a mix of the last two games, the Czechs were all about puck possession and the United States could really skate, I think Finland will be a mixture of both so we’re going to have to be ready to defend and to take what they give us.”
It won’t be easy, as this year’s Finnish team is one of the best in recent memory, beginning with goaltender Sasu Hovi, who is getting hot at the right time for his team. Hovi currently leads all goaltenders at the tournament with a 2.00 GAA and an 89.87 save percentage.
“Sasu today really gave us a chance to win today,” said team captain Jesse Saarinen after the semi-final against Sweden. “In the key moments of the game he made some unbelievable saves, fantastic performance.”
Hovi is backed up on the blue line by a strong defensive corps led by Sami Markkanen, arguably one of the world’s best Inline hockey defenceman, and Mikko Pukka, having a great tournament points-wise with two goals and eight assists in five game. Up front, the scoring is balanced amongst all the Finnish lines, led by Markus Jokinen, Marko Virtala, and Stromberg.
The team also has experienced leadership in all the right places. Head coach Timo Nurmberg and Saarinen played together on the 2003 championship team.
“We shared that experience, it’s been eleven years now and we’re hungry for tomorrow,” said Saarinen after the Sweden game. “We’ll enjoy this win for like five minutes and then we get ready for tomorrow.”
“We have a group of guys that are a really tight group,” he added. “Everybody plays the system and wants to play the system and wants to play for the team, and I think that’s a good combination. Will and skill, all together.”
Faceoff is at 19:00 CET. The game will be live-streamed for free on IIHF.com.