Finland has made history. On Saturday, the Finns beat Canada for the first time ever in an IIHF playoff game. Susanna Tapani got the second-period winner in front of 4,311 fans as the ecstatic host nation scored a 4-2 upset victory and a berth in the 2019 Women's Worlds gold medal game.
Finland will face the U.S.-Russia winner in the gold medal game. It is the first time in IIHF history that the Finnish women will play for gold. It is also the first time that Canada, whose gold medal drought dating back to 2012 continues, will compete for the bronze medal. There will be no all-North American final for the first time ever, dating back to the 1990 tournament. This is the 19th Women's Worlds.
"This was one of our dreams, but the big dream's tomorrow," said goalie Noora Raty, an Espoo native, who starred with 43 saves.
The semi-final was a physical, intense game – the single most exciting encounter of these Women’s Worlds so far. The Finnish power play, magnificently quarterbacked by captain Jenni Hiirikoski, clicked twice, and the penalty kill blanked Canada.
Hiirikoski reacted: "Awesome. Amazing. It's, wow! I don't know what to say!"
To pull off this upset, the Finns knew they would need three things: a stellar performance from Raty, an equally committed team defence, and an aggressive enough attack to get at least three goals. This was bang on.
"I think it means everything," said Michelle Karvinen. "This is what needed to happen. We have wanted to prove this for a long time, because we knew we could do it. I think it will open up a lot of the mindset of women's hockey, that there are more than two teams. And everybody can do it if they're just willing to work for it."
Ronja Savolainen potted two goals and an assist, and Hiirikoski had a goal and an assist for Finland, while Noora Tulus had two assists. Hiirikoski, a tireless 32-year-old and perennial IIHF all-star, leads the tournament with 10 points, a personal best.
Jamie Lee Rattray and Loren Gabel replied for Canada.
"Obviously Finland's a great team, and they're going to come to play in their home rink in a semi-final game," said Canada's Jill Saulnier. "And they did just that. I give credit to them. They had a fabulous game today. We took a lot of lessons from today, for sure."
The cliche that "your best players have to be your best players" rang poignantly true here. Injured Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin didn't get that chance, as she sat out again. She had just 4:44 of ice time in total in this tournament during Canada’s 5-1 win over Russia.
Canadian legend Shannon Szabados returned between the pipes for the first time since Canada’s 6-1 win over the Finns and made 15 stops
The battle level from both teams was as high as the roar of the partisan Metro Areena crowd.
Finland has never beaten Canada in six tries at the Olympics, and had only won previously once in 23 Women’s Worlds encounters, 4-3 in group play in Plymouth, Michigan in 2017. In the round-robin here in Espoo, Canada thumped the hosts 6-1. The odds were stacked against coach Pasi Mustonen's team.
Mustonen said getting here had been a process: "The players have a lot of autonomy. They are part of our process. They make a lot of decisions, coaching decisions, practice decisions, planning what we do. I'm so proud of the players, because they put together this process with us leaders. We have a unique process in the Finnish women's national team. There's been research on it. You can find it online. When you do that sort of process year after year, finally sooner or later you will manage something big. "
Canada got the early lead it wanted at 2:32. Laura Stacey came off the wall and her shot deflected off the stick of Rattray, who was going hard to the net.
The Finns were initially hemmed in their own zone by Canada, and that only intensified when Tanja Niskanen took the first penalty for hooking. Raty’s heroics kept it a one-goal game. At the 11-minute mark, Stacey got loose on the right side and whizzed one off the far-side post.
Canada’s power play came in ranked second-best (31.82 percent), but the Finns’ PK was second-best too (84.6 percent), and it was perfect on this day. After killing off a penalty to 45-year-old veteran Riikka Sallinen, the Finns improved their tempo and the physicality increased. With the Finns applying pressure around the Canadian net, star defender Laura Fortino was called for slashing down low. It proved costly.
At 16:23, Hiirikoski, the engine behind Finland’s special teams, played catch with Noora Tulus, and then lined up a bomb of a one-timer from the centre point that Savolainen deflected in. Notably, Savolainen scored the late winner against Canada in the 2017 WW upset.
"She is already a superstar in our own team," Raty said of Savolainen. "Now she's showing that for the whole world."
Play was stopped late in the first when Blayre Turnbull was shaken up after Savolainen shoved her into the boards to Raty’s left. A hush fell over the stands until Turnbull, who has four goals at these Women’s Worlds and just won a CWHL championship with the Calgary Inferno, skated off with assistance. There was no call on the play, and the forward did not return, further challenging Canada’s depth.
Despite being outshot 14-6 in the first period, the Finns now had a spark.
"We know they're a really good hockey club," said Canadian captain Brianne Jenner. "We've known that for a number of years now, and we know Noora's one of the best goalies in the world. So we knew it would be a challenge coming in tonight. I don't think we were good enough on our details."
The Finns continued to press early in the second. But when Tuominen went off for a side boards hit on an incoming Sarah Nurse and Sallinen was dinged for holding just 12 seconds later, Canada got a 5-on-3 for 1:48 that fell short. Raty made an incredible stick-side save on Rebecca Johnston at point blank range.
"She was a brick wall for her team," Saulnier said of Raty.
"If they score there, it could go either way," Raty added. "So a big, huge kill for us."
The Finnish power play struck again at 6:50. Hiirikoski unleashed another centre point drive and it got through for a 2-1 lead with defender Rosa Lindstedt, Finland’s biggest player at 187 cm and 80 kg, providing the screen.
Canada promptly tied it up on a rush, swarming Raty’s net at 7:53. Gabel slipped the puck over to Bettez and got just enough of it back to put it inside the post for her fourth goal of the tournament. The 2019 Patty Kazmaier Award winner is coming off a 40-goal campaign with Clarkson University.
With blue-and-white flags flying in a frenzied atmosphere, the Finns kept coming. After Karvinen knocked down a Canadian clearing attempt, she sent it back to Laitinen, whose low shot was tipped by Tapani through traffic at 16:18. For Laitinen, it was the 16-year-old blueliner’s first point in her first Women’s Worlds, and it was huge.
At the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Finland also led Canada 3-2 going into the third period of the semi-final, but lost 7-3. Would this be a re-run of that old movie? The answer was no.
"I think we had courage," said Karvinen. "They got a couple power plays but we stayed calm and waited for our chances and kept it together as a team. Blocking shots, working, skating -- we were doing everything well that we need to do as a team. So it definitely was a team effort."
In the third period, Canada thought it had scored when Melodie Daoust found Jill Saulnier barging to the net and Saulnier ran over Raty with the puck underneath. A lengthy review ensued, but there was no goal.
With under seven minutes left, Johnston slammed her stick in frustration after Raty foiled her on a great chance from the right faceoff circle. A few minutes later, Nurse snuck one right behind the goalie, and it seemed impossible that Raty wouldn't put it in her own net, but somehow it stayed out.
Raty hailed her team's overall defensive effort: "Most of the shots came from kind of outside the middle. I could see the puck pretty well and not a lot of screens or tips today."
Deafening chants of "Suomi!" urged the home women over the finish line. Canada pulled Szabados for the extra skater with 1:22 left. With 38 seconds left, Savolainen won a foot race and one-handed the puck into the empty net. Good night, Canada. The Finns went bananas celebrating behind their net at the final buzzer.
"It just shows that teams and countries are gunning for us and to get to the top," Saulnier said. "If you're going to take anything positive, it's definitely that the other countries are getting better. Women's hockey is getting better. It's a good game to play in, obviously. Not the result we wanted. But it just goes to show we have to come 100 percent every day."
The Canadian women haven’t won a senior IIHF gold medal since their remarkable late comeback in the 3-2 gold medal victory over the U.S. at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"I think it's a great lesson for us," said Canadian coach Perry Pearn. "For us to think we're going to automatically be in a gold-medal game is ludicrous. For the game to grow, we need Finland to be as strong as they are now. I think this will be a kickstart for Finland getting stronger. It puts the onus on us to work a lot harder."
Before the game, Finnish legend Marianne Ihailainen had her jersey retired in an on-ice ceremony. The 52-year-old Tampere native, an eight-time Finnish league champion, captained Finland from 1992 to 2000. Ihalainen won five Women’s Worlds bronze medals and the inaugural 1998 Olympic bronze medal.