Marko Anttila scored the third-period winner with 9:42 left as Finland stunned Russia 1-0 in a tense, tactical semi-final to move on to the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold medal game.
Anttila, Finland's tallest player at 203 cm, grabbed the loose puck after Henri Jokiharju's point shot bounced off defenceman Nikita Zaitsev's leg, and fired it through Russian goalie Andrei Vasilevski's gaping five-hole.
"He took a stick in the face and came back and scored the game-winning goal," said Finnish goalie Kevin Lankinen, who recorded his second tournament shutout with 32 saves. "That shows a lot of character. He’s a good leader and a really nice guy to be around."
The 33-year-old Finnish captain, a 2018 Olympian and third-time Worlds participant, has shone in the clutch at these Worlds. He also got the tying goal with 1:29 left in regulation when Finland eliminated defending champion Sweden with a 5-4 quarter-final victory.
Finland will face the Canada-Czech Republic winner in Sunday's final. The Finns last won gold under the same head coach, Jukka Jalonen, in Bratislava in 2011. Their only previous Worlds gold was in 1995 in Stockholm. The Finns are seeking their first medal since 2016’s silver medal in Moscow, where they lost the final to Canada.
"We’ve believed in ourselves all tournament," said Lankinen. "I don’t know if anybody else has, but the way we’re playing, we can beat any team in this tournament. I like to think we’ve got one more win left in us."
Desperate for the equalizer, the Russians pulled Vasilevski, a two-time Vezina Trophy nominee, for the extra skater with under two minutes to go. Lankinen, a Chicago prospect with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs, stood his ground despite losing his stick in the dying moments, making a fine blocker save on Nikita Kucherov.
The Russians, who hadn't lost a game in Bratislava until now, are stacked with three Art Ross Trophy winners as the NHL's leading scorer: Kucherov (2019), Yevgeni Malkin (2009, 2012), and Alexander Ovechkin (2008). Considering Finland's virtually anonymous roster by World Championship standards, this is a big upset. The team has just two young NHLers, Chicago's Jokiharju and Florida's Juho Lammikko.
"We couldn’t score and then we allowed a soft goal at the other end," said Russian defenceman Mikhail Sergachyov. "They got a lucky bounce. That was the difference. We have to give them their due: they defended well against our forwards. They didn’t give us anything."
Russia, which won Olympic gold last year in PyeongChang, still has a chance to claim a Worlds medal for the fifth time in the last sixth years. Head coach Ilya Vorobyov, who oversaw last year's sixth-place finish, will return home without gold for the second straight year. Russia’s last gold medal was in 2014 under then-coach Oleg Znarok.
"The game felt like it would be decided by the first goal," said Vorobyov. "Unfortunately we didn’t score it. The only way to disrupt an opponent playing that kind of game is to score on them. We’ve told the guys to put it behind them and prepare for the [bronze-medal] game."
Tactically, the industrious Finns dictated the terms of play in the scoreless first period, outshooting Russia 15-10 in front of 9,085 fired-up fans at Ondrej Nepela Arena. Finland even got an early 4-on-3 power play with both Ovechkin and Kucherov sitting in the penalty box.
Later, Kaapo Kakko whacked the puck right on to the goal line, and only the incredible flexibility and strength of Vasilevski's right leg kept the 18-year-old TPS Turku star from actually putting it in. Kakko, who could be the #1 overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, exploded for six goals and an assist in the first four games of his first World Championship, but hasn’t scored since registering two points in the 3-1 win over Denmark.
Near the four-minute mark of the second period, an onrushing Niko Ojamaki one-timed a 130 km/hour blast off Vasilevski's right post. The Finns continued to take away Russian time and space in the neutral zone, slowing the game down to their benefit.
"You have to be careful with those guys," Anttila said. "You can't do anything stupid. You have to keep them to the outside and skate hard."
Of Jalonen's coaching, Lammikko added: "He has everyone playing our systems. We play for the guy next to you. We just play. We try not to think too much, just go out one shift at a time and play hard."
Entering this semi-final, Finland's total time spent in the box (40 PIM) was the tournament’s second-lowest after the Americans (34 PIM). Russia got its first and only power play early in the third period after defenceman Oliwer Kaski slashed Kirill Kaprizov's stick. The brainy Nikita Gusev ran the power play from the half-wall, but when he and Malkin paired up to set Dadonov for a point-blank one-timer, Lankinen read it perfectly.
"It was an unbelievable atmosphere, and they have such a great team," said Lammikko. "We played the best game of the tournament, and our goalie was amazing."
This was truly deja vu, as the 2011 gold-medal Finnish team also shut out Russia in the semi-final. That game, featuring Mikael Granlund's iconic "lacrosse goal," finished 3-0. Then-Russian national team coach Slava Bykov was in attendance on Saturday, experiencing a familiar feeling.
"Everybody is saying we don't have that good a team this year but we believe in ourselves," said Finland's Sakari Manninen. "We just want to win. We're playing for each other. We have one more to go."
Other memorable cases where Finland spoiled Russia's hopes include the 2-1 overtime win in the 2007 World Championship semi-final in Moscow, the 3-1 win in the 2014 Olympic quarter-final in Sochi, and the 3-1 win in the 2016 World Championship semi-final in Moscow.
Asked if Finland has a curse over Russia, Kaprizov said: "I don’t know, what kind of curse could there be?"
During the Cold War era, the Finns lost 37 consecutive Worlds games to the Soviet Union. Against modern Russia, they’ve fared much better. This result evened the head-to-head record at 10 wins, one tie and 10 losses. But right now, Jukka Jalonen’s team is focused on making golden history on Sunday.
"We have one more game and we want to win tomorrow and we’ve already started to prepare for that," said Jalonen.