A 20-save shutout by Pekka Rinne propelled Finland to a 3-0 semi-final win over the Czechs. Next up is a gold medal showdown with Russia on Sunday.
Finland put up a defensive wall and scored in all three periods. The Czechs simply had no answer.
"Tonight was a perfect game and everything was under control," said Finland's Petri Kontiola. "We have to stay out of the penalty box, especially against Russia."
Now, the Russians - the only unbeaten team at this World Championship - should be out for revenge after the ever-tenacious Finns stunningly eliminated them with a 3-1 Olympic quarter-final victory in Sochi in February.
The final also promises to be a great goaltending duel between Rinne, a two-time nominee for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best netminder, and Russian starter Sergei Bobrovski, who won the Vezina last season. Here, Rinne has three shutouts in eight games.
"I'm really excited with the opportunity and what we've accomplished so far," said Rinne. "Let's see what happens tomorrow."
It will be the first time Russia and Finland have ever met in a World Championship gold medal game since the IIHF introduced the playoff system in 1992.
The Czechs will face Sweden for bronze in Sunday's early game at Minsk Arena
It’s a surprising and happy scenario for a workmanlike Finnish squad that lost to Latvia (3-2), Russia (4-2), and the United States (3-1) during group play.
"There may have been talk that our team was not good enough after the first two games and that gave us a little bit of energy," said Finland's Tommi Huhtala.
This was a good night for Finland’s KHL aces in front of a crowd of 14,378. Team points leader Jori Lehtera tallied twice, and Jarkko Immonen added a single and an assist for Finland.
"It's payback time [against Russia]," Lehtera said of the final. "We have to win this game. It's the biggest game of my life. The Olympics was big, but this is a final. We have to play hard as a team and see what happens."
Goaltender Alexander Salak made 24 saves for the Czechs.
"They skate well as always," said Salak of the Finns. "They are a great skating team. Too bad we couldn't keep it scoreless longer."
The Finns are now guaranteed their first World Championship medal since the 2011 gold in Slovakia. Meanwhile, the Czechs could capture bronze again, as they last did in 2012.
The Czech Republic hasn't won this tournament since the last Olympic year. In Germany 2010, they earned a 2-1 decision over a Russian team stacked with 14 returning Olympians from Vancouver.
It’s a chance for Finnish coach Erkka Westerlund to claim his first IIHF gold medal as coach of the national team. Westerlund’s previous best outings were both silver medals, at the 2006 Turin Olympics, where the Finns lost 3-2 to Sweden, and at the 2007 World Championship, where they fell 4-2 to Canada.
"I've already talked to Leo [Komarov about what Russia can do] before the tournament," said Westerlund. "Maybe we will discuss it some more. But we already know Russia's system. Maybe we need to concentrate more on the PK because of Malkin."
Unsurprisingly, with two defence-first teams, the semi-final got off to a cautious start. Olli Palola had one of the best early chances near the seven-minute mark when he walked down the middle on an odd-man rush, but put the puck over the crossbar.
Just a minute later, Lehtera made it 1-0 for Finland on a beautiful individual effort. He accepted a long Juuso Hietanen pass in the neutral zone and powered into the Czech zone, outmuscling defenceman Ondrej Vitasek as he cut into the middle and roofed a backhander past Salak’s attempted pokecheck.
Right afterwards, captain Olli Jokinen was sent off for holding up Jaromir Jagr in the Finnish zone. But the Czechs couldn’t convert here, despite sending a puck through Rinne’s legs and out the other side.
Prior to the semi-finals, the Finns had the tournament’s third-best power play, clicking at 25.9 percent. They couldn't cash in with their first man advantage either, but got a nice last-minute opportunity when Tomi Sallinen found Iiro Pakarinen – the hero of the quarter-final win over Canada – rushing in on the right. However, Salak stuck out his right leg to thwart Pakarinen’s drive.
Early in the second period, Jarkko Immonen centered the puck from behind the goal line to an unguarded Palola in front, but it was rolling and Salak got it with his paddle.
The Czechs mounted more power play pressure under Jagr’s command near the midway point, and the legendary right winger unleashed a vicious wrister from the right circle that left Rinne looking dazed. But somehow, he recovered in time to smother the puck on the other side of his crease, with some help from his defence.
Finland went up 2-0 with the man advantage at 11:02, working the puck around neatly. Jere Karalahti found Kontiola in the left faceoff circle and he got it down low to Immonen, who pivoted off the goal line to put it through the kneeling Salak’s legs.
"That power-play goal in the second was not good on my behalf," said Salak. "I could have helped the team better on that one."
The Czechs kept putting pucks toward Rinne, but couldn’t get the right bounce, with one attempt after another just skittering wide. The Nashville Predators netminder looked absolutely enormous.
Several loud pro-Czech choruses went up from the stands in the third period, but they just couldn't get anything going. The Finns clogged it up perfectly.
Illustrating his team's frustration, Jagr took an untimely slashing penalty on Leo Komarov, and then angrily tossed stuff around the penalty box.
There was a final Czech flurry after pulling Salak for the extra man with 1:24 left, but no dice. Lehtera added an empty-netter just before the final buzzer.
"I think we ran out of power and it was hard for us to come back and create any scoring chances," said Salak.
The three best players for each team were honoured. For the Czechs, it was Alexander Salak, Vladimir Sobotka and Jaromir Jagr. For the Finns, it was Pekka Rinne, Jori Lehtera, and Atte Ohtamaa.
With this loss, Vladimir Ruzicka missed an opportunity to claim his third IIHF World Championship gold medal as the Czechs' head coach. He was also behind the bench in 2005 and 2010.
"The first period was decisive in my opinion," Ruzicka said. "The Finns scored first. In the second we started well but then took too many penalties, and when the Finns were 2-0 up they played very well in the neutral and defensive zones, everywhere close to the net."
The result improved Finland’s all-time World Championship record against the Czech Republic (since 1993) to six wins, three ties, and eleven losses.