The newly promoted Kazakhs competed hard in their opener but couldn't keep up with Finland, falling 5-0 in Victoria on Thursday night.
Otto Latvala, Aarne Talvitie, Samuli Vainionpaa, Kaapo Kakko and Aleksi Heponiemi scored for Finland, which bounced back after a 2-1 loss to Sweden to kick off the tournament. Jesse Ylonen chipped in two assists. The Finns outshot Kazakhstan 56-18.
"They’re probably not a skilled team, Kazakhstan, but they have a lot of heart in what they do," said Talvitie. "They gave us some pressure at the beginning of the game, but when the game went on, I think we picked up a lot and then got a couple of scoring chances and a couple of goals. After that we just rolled with our own playing."
This was beneficial for Finland's offensive confidence in its quest for its fifth World Junior title ever. Previous gold medals came in 1987, 1998, 2014, and 2016.
Finnish coach Jussi Ahokas gave backup goalie Filip Lindberg his first World Junior action ever, and it paid off with the shutout. Demid Yeremeyev, another debutant, was a show-stealer all night in net for Kazakhstan, despite the lopsided score.
The Finns started a little slowly, while Kazakhstan looked excited to be playing its first World Junior game since a 7-1 relegation round loss to Latvia in Ottawa on 4 January, 2009. The Victoria crowd chanted, “Kazakhstan! Kazakhstan!”, in support of coach Sergei Starygin’s underdogs.
"It feels like home because all the people were supporting and yelling," said Yeremeyev. "I didn’t expect that would happen in our first game. Thanks to the Canadian people who supported us in our first game! It helped a lot."
However, the early good times wouldn’t last for the former Soviet republic that bid unsuccessfully against China for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Yeremeyev made a flurry of heroic saves just before Latvala beat him high with a glove-side wrister on Finland’s 11th shot at 12:52.
"There was a lot of traffic in front of the net and the rebound headed straight to my stick," said Latvala. "There was an empty net at the time, and it was easy work to put the puck in."
Talvitie, the Finnish captain, got his second goal of the tournament when Valeri Orekhov’s botched outlet pass wound up on his stick in the high slot, and he roofed it home at 15:08.
The fans roared when Oleg Boiko knocked down Finnish assistant captain Henri Jokiharju, and Yeremeyev robbed Talvitie just before the first period ended. But the Finns had clearly seized the momentum with a 17-6 edge in shots.
In the second period, Yeremeyev boosted his status as a crowd favourite, robbing 2018 Olympic star and Nashville prospect Eeli Tolvanen three times, twice on partial breakaways and once with a magnificent glove save.
"He played really well," said Talvitie. "We could have been more effective with our goal-scoring, but he definitely played really well. He was one of the key points why we scored only five goals."
The Finns were relentless. After Valtteri Puustinen waltzed in and put one off the post, Vainionpaa was there to roof the rebound home at 12:49 as Yeremeyev lunged in vain.
At 7:17 of the third period, the 17-year-old Finnish super-prospect Kakko, who won U18 gold in April in Russia, got a point for the second straight game when he converted a wraparound. Just 1:56 later, Heponiemi made it 5-0 on a rebound.
"It was a good game, but we were not lucky in some situations," said Orekhov. "We had a power play [in the second period], but we didn’t manage to capitalize. Finland has a very strong team. Unfortunately, the result was not positive for us."
After the final buzzer, Yeremeyev got a standing ovation when he was named Kazakhstan's Player of the Game.
"I feel great," said Yeremeyev. "I liked the game a lot. I felt very good personally in the game. The emotions are very big. I’ve had difficult games before, but not on this level, not at a huge rink with so many people supporting the team."
Kazakhstan played a wide variety of opponents in its pre-tournament exhibition slate, defeating the University of Victoria 6-2, Trinity Western University 4-3 in overtime, the BCIHL All-Stars 2-0, and the Alberni Valley Bulldogs before losing to Switzerland 4-1. However, this was a whole new level.
There will be no respite for Starygin's team, which faces the Americans on Friday. The Finns take on winless Slovakia on Saturday.
"It’s good to have this win and it’s important for the team," said Latvala. "Of course, we’ll have a day off, and it’s easier to go further in the tournament after this win."