UFA – For the second straight year, Latvia opened the World Juniors with a tough loss to a Nordic nation. A three-point effort by Miro Aaltonen lifted Finland to a 5-1 victory at Ufa’s Sports Palace.
Aaltonen scored twice for Finland and added an assist. Rasmus Ristolainen had a goal and a helper, and Artturi Lehkonen and Markus Granlund added singles. Joel Armia chipped in two assists.
Unfortunately, Aaltonen had to leave the game after a third-period blueline collision where his right ankle appeared to get badly twisted.
"His tournament is over because his ankle is very bad," said Finnish coach Harri Rindell, who said the 19-year-old Espoo Blues forward may require surgery. "He was so depressed because he really wanted to play and he is in great shape. That's hockey, unfortunately."
Nikolajs Jelisejevs replied for Latvia, which lost 9-4 to Sweden to kick off last year’s tournament.
"I think we played well, but the reason we lost this game is we took too many penalties," said Latvian forward Roberts Lipsbergs.
Finnish goalie Joonas Korpisalo outdueled his Latvian counterpart Elvis Merzlikins as Finland outshot Latvia 44-12.
Rindell's crew, who defeated Canada 3-2 and the United States 5-1 in pre-tournament exhibitions, didn’t do anything to hurt their growing reputation as a medal contender. Finland hasn’t taken a medal at the World Juniors since 2006’s bronze in Vancouver.
It took just 1:54 for Finland to open the scoring, as Lehkonen rushed to the net and tipped in a Ville Pokka feed.
The Latvians drew even at 8:25 when Jelisejevs swatted the puck past Korpisalo during a goalmouth scramble
At 12:23, the Finns made it 2-1 on a sweet Aaltonen tip off Ristolainen’s blueline shot. Just over three minutes later, working with the man advantage, Aaltonen capitalized on a sneaky behind-the-net feed from Joel Armia, beating Merzlikins on the doorstep for a 3-1 lead.
The second period saw both teams parading to the penalty box.
"We need to improve on that for the next game," Rindell said.
Near the game’s midpoint, Finland withstood some quality Latvian power play pressure as Armia and Miikka Salomäki took back-to-back minors.
With just under seven minutes left in the second, Markus Granlund’s close-range one-timer set up by Armia on the power play gave Finland a three-goal lead.
"It was a good pass from Armia," said Granlund. "You're always happy to score goals."
After Aaltonen won a draw in the Latvian zone, Ristolainen powered a blast past Merzlikins on the stick side for a 5-1 edge with 42 seconds left in the middle frame.
In the third period, Salomäki got in behind the Latvian defence for a good chance, but fell and slid harmlessly into Merzlikins.
According to Finnish general manager Timo Bäckman, his players started the day with a brisk walk outside at 8 am before breakfast. This game wasn't a complete walk in the park for the bigger, faster, better-organized Finns, but there was never any doubt who was in command.
Finland's Aleksander Barkov, arguably the top European prospect for the next NHL draft, had a quiet outing in his first game of the 2013 tournament.
Latvia is without forward Zemgus Girgensons, who led his country with two goals at last year’s tournament. A 2012 first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres (14th overall), he was not released by their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, to participate in Ufa.
On Thursday, the Latvians have a possible must-win game against fellow underdog Switzerland.
"Tomorrow is the most important game in this tournament," said Lipsbergs. "We need to play like we did today, not take too many penalties, and then we'll see."
The Swiss came eighth and Latvia ninth in Calgary in 2012. Finland’s next test is Friday against the Czech Republic, which finished fifth last year.
"We have to work harder and improve our defence against the Czechs," said Granlund.