In the annals of hockey history, Finland vs Germany doesn’t have the same ring as Finland vs Sweden, Czech Republic vs Russia or the other semi-final, USA vs Canada. But those two teams will meet in the second semi-final of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
It doesn’t seem like that long ago that the Finns were upstarts in the hockey world. Up until the mid-1980s, they were often neck-and-neck with West Germany before finally pulling ahead in the latter part of the decade. They didn’t win their first World Championship medal of any colour until 1992 – a silver in Prague – but they soon rose sharply. Just three years later, they won their first gold. Two years ago in Bratislava, they won their third gold and 14th medal in 28 years. If you add to that their accomplishments at the U20 and U18 levels and women’s hockey, there’s no question that Finland is one of hockey’s elite hockey nations.
There are seven returning players from Finland’s championship team from two years ago: Jussi Olkinuara (who was the backup goalie), Oliwer Kaski, Petteri Lindbohm, Miika Koivisto, Niko Ojamaki, Jere Sallinen and captain Marko Antilla.
The Germans have four medals to their credit, but the last one was back in 1953. Since then, they’ve had only one top-four finish – in 2010 on home ice in Mannheim, after beating rival Switzerland in the quarter-finals. Of course, there has been some Olympic success in that time – a bronze won by West Germany in 1976 and, fresher in everybody’s memory, a silver in 2018 in PyeongChang.
Six members of this current German team were Olympic silver medalists three years ago: Dominik Kahun, Mathias Plachta, Marcel Noebels, Moritz Muller, Jonas Muller and Leonhard Pfoderl.
Finland and Germany have only met once in the knockout stage of the World Championships since its introduction in 1992 – that was in Germany in the 2001 quarter-finals. The Finns won that game 4-1 and eventually advanced to the final, where they lost to the Czech Republic in overtime.
The two teams were both in Group B this season – Finland finished second and Germany third. In their head-to-head meeting on 29 May, the fifth game for each team, the game was tied 1-1 in the third period when Arttu Ruotsalainen scored the eventual game-winner with 8:34 to play. The goalies in that game were Olkinuara and Mathias Niederberger, and it’s expected they’ll be the starters again in the semi-final.
Unsurprisingly, the game was defensive in nature, with Finland outshooting Germany 26-13. In what was a low-scoring group altogether, the Finns outscored their opponents 19-10 and the Germans theirs 22-14.
The defensive trend continued in the quarter-finals. Facing Switzerland at the Olympic Sports Centre, the Germans trailed 2-0 but rallied to tie it, then won in a shootout, with Noebels scoring the game-winning goal Forsberg-style. In their game against the Czechs at Arena Riga, the Finns grinded out a goal by Jere Innala midway through the second period and that was it; 1-0 was the final score.
Both goalies are in the top five of the tournament in terms of save percentage and goals-against average, which is a reflection of their play as well as their teams’. Having played five of Finland’s eight games so far, Olkinuora posts 95.00 and 1.18, which are both second to the USA’s Cal Petersen among goalies who have played at least 40 per cent of their teams’ games. Niederberger is fifth in both categories at 93.42 and 1.64 in six games.
"The anticipation for the semi-finals is great," said German forward Markus Eisenschmid. "We know that the Finns are very disciplined and defensively strong. It will depend on patience. We know that so many people are watching at home and we are proud of that."
It would be over-simplistic to describe these two teams as simply defensive machines, however. They both have an abundance of talent, and much of it young, like most teams at this year’s tournament.
Counting his game-winning shot, Noebels leads Germany with eight points in eight games, followed by Plachta and 19-year-old Lukas Reichel with six points each.
While he has dispersed ice time fairly evenly over the course of the tournament, Germany’s Finnish coach Soderholm has relied heavily on a veteran and a youngster to carry to play in key situations: 30-year-old forward Plachta and 20-year-old defenceman Moritz Seider, who both log slightly less than 20 minutes per game.
“They’re a really skilled team,” said Finnish forward Iiro Pakarinen. “In the game we played against them, it was a couple of their young players we really had to watch out for – Seider the defenceman and Reichel the forward. They’ve got some good young players with speed so we have to be ready for that.”
Interestingly, 11 of Finland’s 20 goals have been scored by three players: Ruotsalainen and Lundell both have four and Iiro Pakarinen has three. At even strength, Ruotsalainen and Lundell generally play together with Niko Ojamaki.
Although he has only one assist so far, watch out for Anttila to be a game-breaker. Two years ago, he scored Finland’s last four goals of the tournament – the overtime winner in the quarter-final against Sweden and all three of the team’s goals in the last two games.
Germany is one of the most penalized teams in the tournament so far and have taken more than double the number of minor penalties Finland has through eight games (27-14), so discipline will be key in this game. Having said that, neither team has been dazzling with the man advantage, each having scored only three power-play goals so far.
Two years ago, Finland used a stifling defensive style to beat Finland, Russia and Canada en route to the gold medal. This year, Jalonen’s troops are beginning to follow the same template but, being the giant slayers they are, one wonders if Germany could be the right type of team to counteract that style.
“We played against Germany before and have to have a rest and tomorrow we can think about them and how to beat them,” said Jalonen, who might have then foreshadowed: “It will be tough – it could be a one-goal game again.”