HALIFAX – As quarter-finals Wednesday approaches and teams jockey for position in the coming days, the Finland-United States matchup at the Metro Centre tonight will go a long way to determining the seedings for the Halifax half of the draw. Because of time and travel considerations, this year is different in that the quarter-finals will not be the usual crossover format. Instead, the top team in Group F will play the fourth team in the same group, and the second and third place teams will meet.
Canada leads the way with 12 points, but it has played four games. Finland is next with eight points in three games, and USA is third with six points in three games. Norway has four points from three games and Germany and Latvia still have no points. It looks reasonably certain that Norway will finish in fourth with a chance to equal its highest finish since 1990 when it finished eighth.
Germany is officially eliminated from quarter-final possibilities, so the only other team that could finish fourth in the group is Latvia, but that remains a longshot.
Of course, the big three nations in the group are fighting to finish first because a quarter-finals date with Norway is far more appealing than facing one of the other three countries. Thus the importance of the Finland-United States game. A Finnish win will guarantee second place and give it a chance for first when the Finns play Canada on Monday. A USA win, however, would mean far less because even if USA tied Canada for first place Canada would receive the superior seeding because it beat the United States 5-4 in their head-to-head meeting.
In short, Finland would rather play Norway than the United States in the quarter-finals, so it has more to gain from a win than USA, which seems most likely to play Finland regardless whether it wins or loses (although nothing is yet set in stone).
In truth, neither team is playing very well. Although Finland can happily boast that it has yet to lose a game—a valid point at all times, of course—it struggled to beat Norway, 3-2, in overtime, and was equally unimpressive in beating Slovakia, 3-2, and Latvia, 2-1. Unbeaten? Yes. Impressive? Not yet.
The United States has been slightly better, perhaps, but still has lacked the all-around game to be mentioned right now in the same breath as Canada, Russia, and the Czech Republic. The Americans struggled with Latvia, winning 4-0 on four power-play goals, and wasted a great rally against Canada to lose, 5-4.
The game against Germany, its most recent, was full of problems even though they won. The last goal was an empty netter, but they squandered an early 3-0 lead and pulled goalie Craig Anderson after two periods after he allowed four goals on just ten shots.
The Finns definitely have the advantage in goal. Niklas Backstrom has played very well, while the Americans are in distress. Number-one man Tim Thomas left the tournament after suffering a knee injury against Canada, and Anderson was unimpressive against the Germans. Third goalie Robert Esche might be called upon to bail the team out if coach John Tortorella loses confidence in Anderson.
On the other hand, USA has scored 19 goals in four games while the Finns have only 13. More to the point, eleven of those 19 American goals have been scored on the power play. Indeed, in 5-on-5 play, the Americans have scored eight goals and allowed eight goals, suggesting that if the Finns can stay out of the penalty box they’ll have an excellent chance of winning. If they can’t, the potent USA power play might be the margin of victory.
What Finland does have, though, are game-breakers, proven stars who can come up with that big goal at the right time. Saku and Mikko Koivu, Teemu Selanne, and Olli Jokinen all fit the bill. The Americans have several fine young players in their own right, namely Zach Parise, Phil Kessel and Patrick O’Sullivan, but they don’t quite have the same intimidation factor as the top Finns (which may be a good thing—nothing like flying under the radar until the big goal).
Defensively, the edge has to go to the Americans on scoring and to the Finns for work in their own end. Paul Martin has six assists and is third in scoring for defencemen. These six points are the same number as the entire Finnish defensive corps has accumulated. The Americans also have Jordan Leopold and Matt Greene. The Finnish defence, while not as offensively gifted, has allowed only six goals, lowest in the tournament. Ville Koistinen, Ossi Vaananen, and Janne Niskala have all been excellent for Suomi.
On paper, the pre-game edge has to go to Finland, but maybe the best indications are from less tangible vales. The Finns haven’t looked dangerous for a full game, but the Americans showed tremendous heart rallying from 3-0 down to Canada, even though they lost in the last minute. Finland has the talent and the players to win, but that intangible factor suggests an American win.