HELSINKI – Petri Kontiola scored twice and assisted on Juhamatti Aaltonen’s winner to lift Finland to a 4-3 quarter-final victory over Slovakia on Thursday. The Finns blew a 3-0 lead, but survived to face the winner of Canada-Sweden in in the semi-finals in Stockholm on Saturday.
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"We were ecstatic, and then we were down on ourselves, and then happy again," said Aaltonen. "But I guess the emotional roller coaster doesn't matter when we take a win."
The Finns are seeking to return to the medal podium for the first time since taking gold in 2011. Their top line, centered by Kontiola, is delivering the goods.
In the quarter-final, Aaltonen finished with a goal and two assists and Janne Pesonen added two assists. Kontiola, with 15 points, is vying for the tournament scoring title.
The Slovaks, who made it to the final last year and claimed the silver medal versus Russia, will be going home empty-handed this year. Still, it's better than the period of 2008 to 2011, when they finished outside the top eight annually.
With 33 saves, goalie Antti Raanta, who led Ässät Pori to the Finnish championship this year, helped his national team survive this trial by fire on home ice. It was a great send-off for the blue-and-white team, which would love to replicate 1995's World Championship triumph in Stockholm.
"Winning the group means nothing -- this is the most important game," said Raanta. "I was a little nervous when they scored their third goal, and I remembered the 5-1 game in Helsinki [when Sweden rallied to win 6-5 in the 2003 quarter-final], but I wasn't nervous before the game."
Netminder Rastislav Stana made 21 saves for Slovakia. Stana is one of three players at this tournament who helped the Slovaks win their lone gold in IIHF World Championship history (2002), the others being captain Miroslav Satan and Jozef Stümpel (a healthy scratch in this game).
This was a rematch of the 2010 Olympic bronze medal game, and, as in Vancouver, the Finns came out on top.
Ossi Väänänen also scored for Finland. Michel Miklik, Andrej Sekera, and Tomas Surovy scored for Slovakia, while Branislav Mezei chipped in three helpers.
"It's disappointing, but they played well," said Slovakia's Milan Jurcina. "They played 60 minutes. We played just 40. They deserved to win."
Finland couldn’t have asked for a better start. At 1:31, Väänänen’s fluttering shot from the right point found the back of the net with Antti Pihlström fighting for position in front.
At 9:49, Kontiola completed a neat three-way passing play on the rush with linemates Juhamatti Aaltonen and Janne Pesonen, stickhandling his way to the net and putting a forehand deke past Stana.
With 4:16 left in the first, Kontiola stretched Finland’s lead to 3-0. Aaltonen’s attempted cross-ice pass was cut off by Slovakia’s Tomas Surovy, but Kontiola grabbed the loose puck and fired a shot that squeaked past Stana’s glove and over the line.
Slovakia got some life at 5:03 of the second when Miklik lifted a wrist shot down the middle through traffic that eluded Raanta and made it 3-1.
The game got more emotional as it went on.
Near the halfway mark, Finnish defenceman Sami Lepisto laid out Marko Dano with a big open-ice hit in the neutral zone that got the crowd oohing. Minutes later, giants Marko Anttila and Milan Jurcina got into a shoving match in front of the Slovak net.
The Slovaks ratcheted up their pressure in the Finnish end and it paid off. At 12:17, defenceman Andrej Sekera’s rising shot from the center point beat the kneeling Ranta, again with traffic in front, and it was 3-2.
Another blue-liner, Rene Vydareny, nearly got the equalizer, pounding a drive off Raanta’s left post. The Finns were retreating into a defensive shell and it was coming close to costing them. Raanta had to be sharp to stymie Tomas Zaborsky and Roman Kukumberg from close range.
Slovakia carried its furious momentum into the third period. Just 30 seconds in, Branko Radivojevic banged a loose puck that had caromed off the back boards through the crease, and Surovy put in the 3-3 equalizer.
"I'm very proud of my team's tying up the game in the second period," said Slovak coach Vladimir Vujtek.
The resilient Finns had an answer, and Kontiola made it happen. He took a short pass from Pesonen deep in the Slovak end and zipped a pass across the front of the Slovak net, and Aaltonen whipped it high over a lunging Stana at 8:13 of the third.
"The boys made a nice play, and that was a chance you have to bury," said Aaltonen.
Desperate, the Slovaks pulled their goalie for a sixth attacker with 2:31 left in the third period. But Raanta and his teammates proved impregnable the rest of the way.
Afterwards, Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen compared his team's performance to a (picture-perfect) "movie" in the first period, a "nightmare" in the second, and a "thriller" in the third.
"As the tournament goes on, you grow as a team, and that's what's happened with us," Väänänen said. "We're a fairly old team, but a lot of players are in their first tournament. It's a good mix of guys."
Interestingly, the Finns have never won a World Championship with an active NHL goalie in net. In 1995, their duo consisted of Jarmo Myllys and Jukka Tammi. In 2011, it was Petri Vehanen and Teemu Lasilla. Relying on Raanta, Finland hopes history will repeat itself.