Dylan Larkin took a long pass from Quinn Hughes, walked in from the blueline and scored the winning goal in overtime at 63:47, ripping a wrist shot under the right arm of goaltender Veini Vehvilainen to end this highly anticipated game in the USA's favour.
“We're getting better every day and today was another improvement against a good team,” said U.S. centre Derek Ryan, whose team has now won two in a row after an opening-night loss to Slovakia. “That's the kind of tournament this is. I like our chances in the end.”
These were the first two points dropped by the Finns in an ever-tightening Group A, who had looked very impressive in their first couple of wins over Canada and Slovakia, despite very few big international starts.
“We didn't play our best today,” said Finnish forward Jere Sallinen. “It was tough. USA played very well and we have to be better. They didn't do anything that surprised us, but they have a lot of skill.”
In addition to being a game between two of Group A's top two teams, it was also the latest match-up between the consensus top two picks in this year's NHL Entry Draft – the USA's Jack Hughes and Finland's Kaapo Kakko. Kakko's Finns had gotten the better of Hughes' Americans in the gold medal games of the U18 and U20 World Championships in previous head-to-heads, but Hughes was on the winning side in this first meeting in the senior men's category. Neither player would figure in the scoring of this game, although Kakko did provide some breathless moments.
The USA struck first before many fans had even settled into their seats. Alex Debrincat feathered a pass back to the point for Brady Skjei, whose one-timer beat an unscreened Vehvilainen untouched just 50 seconds in.
The Americans went up 2-0 just past the midpoint of the opening period on another goal Vehvilainen would like back. Just after a faceoff in the Finnish zone, Johnny Gaudreau picked up the puck and fired a high shot from just below the goal line that hit the goalie’s shoulder and went into the roof of the net. Jack Eichel, who won the draw, picked up his second assist.
Though they were behind the eight-ball quickly, the Finns got one goal back in the last minute of the first period. Deep in the zone, Harri Pesonen fired from a sharp angle up and over the near shoulder of Cory Schneider, who was on his way down.Larkin had a chance to restore the USA’s two-goal lead on a breakaway four minutes into the second period, but lost control of the puck when he tried to go to his backhand and didn’t get a shot away. His redemption would come later.
The first half of the second period was rather offensively stagnant, but chances started to come in the second half of the period when these two teams’ potent power plays finally got some chances – first one for the Americans and then two for the Finns.
On Finland’s first opportunity, Kakko received a pass at the side of the net but rushed his shot and missed with room on the near side, as the many Finns in attendance – especially those seated behind the south-end goal at Steel Arena – groaned in frustration. The star of the tournament so far with five goals in his first two games, the 18-year-old phenom was held off the scoresheet for two periods.
The Finns finally tied it on their second power play, again scoring in the last minute of the period. There, Sakari Manninen registered his second assist of the game, feeding Nika Ojamaki in the high slot, who blasted it top corner with 32 seconds on the clock.
Despite no scoring in the third period, it was full of end-to-end action, with each team firing 11 shots on goal and both goaltenders shining. Vehvilainen's finest save came with just under 11 minutes to play when he slid post-to-post to deny a Patrick Kane one-timer. At the other end, Schneider was as cool as a cucumber with three minutes to go, staring down a Kakko wrister on a 2-on-1 rush and making a pad save as the whole crowd rose in anticipation, then sat back down after the pad save.
Over the course of the game, Vehvilainen stopped 26 of 29 American shots, while Schneider stopped 24 of 26 Finnish shots sent his way.
“I think we played pretty well,” said U.S. defenceman Adam Fox, who got a good shot away amidst some end-to-end action in the third period. “Finland is a good team, and they've played well so far, but this was a big win for us. We're starting to come together as a group and develop a bit more chemistry every day. We came here to win the gold medal, and I think the guys here realize we have a good shot at it.”
In 3-on-3 overtime, the fans came out of their seats for Kakko once more, as he handled the puck in the American zone for what seemed like an eternity, spinning off checks and circling the net, but didn't get a shot away.
Ultimately, though, it was the Americans who got the goal and earned the second point and the leg up should these teams finished tied in the group. After one day off the Americans are back in action Wednesday against Great Britain, while Finland has two days off before facing Denmark on Thursday.