Canada and Finland will meet in Game No. 64 of the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Bratislava – the final. Those same two teams opened this tournament with a 3-1 win for Finland in Game No. 1 in Kosice 16 days ago on 10 May.
To some of the Canadian players, that game seems like ages ago.
“We’ve just been spending a lot of time together and getting to know one another,” goaltender Matt Murray said about the past two weeks. “Obviously, our first game here was our first time together. I’ve seen a lot of improvement since then and I think the off-ice stuff has a lot to do with that.”
Said forward Brad Marchessault: “We’ve learned how to play on the bigger ice and we’re a better team now. I think we’re going to give a better effort than in our first game.”
Since that loss, Canada has won eight games in a row, although not all of them have been pretty. The team’s second game was a relatively easy 8-0 win over Great Britain followed by loosy-goosy affair against host Slovakia that the Canadians were extremely fortunate to take three points from – winning 6-5 on a power-play goal by Mark Stone at 59:58.
Stone has been Mr. Clutch for Canada with that goal, the overtime goal against Switzerland and the game-opener on a nice tip. Overall, he leads the team with 14 points (8+6).
“He’s one of those guys that you don’t realize how great he is until you play with him,” said Marchessault. “He’s unbelievable. He makes all the right plays at the right time, he plays well defensively, he’s aware on the ice. He’s just smarter than everyone out there and that’s why he’s so good.”
Since that opening night win, Finland has lost a couple of times – in overtime to the USA and in regulation time to Germany in a relatively unimportant last game of the group stage – but the team has generally been quite consistent and won two impressive games against star-studded Swedish and Russian teams in the quarters and semis with a lineup that would not immediately impress a layman.
“We’re a team,” said captain Marko Antilla, who scored the only game’s only goal in the semi-final win. “We’re not big stars but we’re 25 guys all working together and we’ve got one more step to go.”
On that opening night, the first goal of the tournament was scored by Kaapo Kakko in spectacular fashion. The 18-year-old would go on to score five of Finland’s first seven goals but is now goalless in his last five games. That hasn’t slowed the Finns, though.
In the semi-finals, we saw that both teams are on top of their games. Against a Czech team that had only been beaten once previously and seemed on paper to be a pretty even matchup, the Canadians were firing on all cylinders.
The Finns, meanwhile, completely shut down the previously unbeaten Russians.
“If you watched that game today, it was hard-fought, both teams had some looks and Finland won,” said Canadian head coach Alain Vigneault. “They were the better team. They’re the only team so far that we haven’t beaten.
“It’s a big win for Finnish hockey and I’m very very proud of our players,” said head coach Jukka Jalonen. “But that’s not enough for us. We have one more game and we want to win tomorrow and we’ve already started to prepare for that.”
Prepared is one thing the Finns have been all tournament long.
“We’ll just do our thing and play like we’ve played the whole tournament and see what happens,” said forward Juho Lammiko. “Everybody plays within the system, plays their role within the group, trusts each other and plays for the guy next to him. We’re having fun on and off the ice.”
On the team being together for a month, without the late additions that a lot of teams made, Lammiko said: “There’s no question it helps. You get to know all the other guys and how they play on the ice, so I think it’s a really good thing.”
On playing against a defensive team like Finland, Canadian defenceman Damon Severson said the key is “trying to limit our mistakes and keep everything simple.”
He continued: “We know we have a lot of skill on this team and we have a good work ethic, good leadership, so we’re just going to keep playing the way that we have been and I think things should go our way if we do that.”
Another interesting thing for the Finns in this game is that Kakko and defenceman Henri Jokiharju are both aiming for double gold after winning the World Junior Championship in Vancouver in January.
“Totally unreal,” Jokiharju said. “I think everything’s a little bit bigger here. The World Juniors in Canada were big, but this is two or three times bigger. I’m really enjoying these moments and I think they’re good for my career.”
Back in Game No. 1, the goaltending matchup was Murray against Kevin Lankinen. Murray stopped 24 of 26 shots and Lankinen stopped 20 of 21. Both have established themselves as their teams’ starters and that will almost certainly be the matchup again in Game No. 64.
“I think we’re just thankful for the opportunity to be here and play for our country and now, this opportunity to play for gold is very exciting,” said Murray. “That’s what we’re here for.”
“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.”
This matchup in the past has favoured Canada, who have won all three previous head-to-head finals. In 1994, Canada ended a 31-year gold-medal draught with a 2-1 shootout victory in Milan, Italy with a lineup that included Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille, Rod Brind’Amour and goaltender Bill Ranford. The Finns countered with Saku Koivu, Jari Kurri, Mikko Makela and goaltender Jarmo Myllys.
The other two finals were both in Moscow, in 2007 and 2016. One player from that 2016 final, Stone, will play when the teams meet again in 2019.
The year after that 1994 final, the Finns finally won their first World Championship, in Stockholm over host Sweden 4-1 thanks to a Ville Peltonen natural hat trick. They won again in 2011, here in Bratislava under coach Jalonen, again beating Sweden 6-1.
“Certain memories came into my head in the last 10 minutes when we were leading by one goal,” said Jalonen, referring to Finland’s 3-0 semi-final win over Russia in 2011, which was 1-0 before a pair of third-period goals broke it open. “Bratislava has been a pretty fortunate place for Finland and for my team.”
Today we’ll find out if Bratislava is fortunate for Finland again with its team of non-stars and duplicate their opening-night win, or if Canada can continue to roll and make it 4-for-4 in World Championship finals.