Dealing with adversity is the name of the game this year. Finland defeated short-staffed Germany 5-3 in their Christmas Day opener at Edmonton’s Rogers Place.
The gap in talent was as big as the gap on the roster sheet, despite the valiant efforts of German captain Tim Stutzle – the #5 overall pick of the Ottawa Senators in 2020 – and linemate John Peterka. With nine players in Edmonton unavailable, German head coach Tobias Abstreiter iced a skeleton lineup with nine forwards and five defencemen. Stutzle played 26:01, second only on Germany to defenceman Simon Gnyp at 28:53.
"I'm very proud of the effort from from our team," said Abstreiter. "They really showed great character and unbelievable composure. At the beginning, you saw a little bit of what's natural, the rust in their bodies, but they came [on] really good in the game.""
German goalie Arno Tiefensee faced relentless Finnish pressure in his World Junior debut. Finnish netminder Kari Piiroinen, whose lone 2020 start was a 7-1 win over Kazakhstan as he backed up Justus Annunen, had an easier outing. The Finns outshot Germany 50-22, including an 18-4 first-period margin.
Aku Raty, Henri Nikkanen, and Topi Niemela chipped in a goal and an assist apiece for Finland. Captain Anton Lundell and Mikael Pyyhtia added singles.
"We had a couple of good practice days before the game, and we felt pretty good," said Raty.
Stutzle and Florian Elias each had a goal and assist, and Samuel Dube also scored for the Germans, who are hoping to improve on last year's ninth-place finish.
The Finns are seeking their sixth World Junior gold medal of all time. They last triumphed in Vancouver (2019) on Kaapo Kakko’s late 3-2 winner versus the Americans.
Lundell opened the scoring at 3:38. Roni Hirvonen circled the zone and found Santeri Hattaka down low. Hatakka sent the puck cross-crease to the Finnish captain, who lifted it over Tiefensee. Lundell, 19, currently sits second in Liiga goal-scoring (12) with HIFK Helsinki.
Coach Antti Pennanen's team made it 2-0 with just 12 seconds left in the first. Tiefensee stopped an onrushing Nikkanen’s shot but lost the puck in his skates, and Aku Raty banged it in. Raty, 19, is the older brother of Aatu Raty, a prospective top pick for the 2021 NHL Draft who did not crack this Finnish roster after a sluggish start with Karpat.
"I think I wasn't the only one who saw [the loose puck], but I was the first one in there," said Raty modestly.
At 1:39 of the second period, Mikko Kokkonen's point shot drifted in in off Pyyhtia to make it 3-0.
Dube, who missed a wide-open net on a German power play, quickly atoned for his error by recovering the puck and spoiling Piiroinen's shutout hopes at 10:35, cutting the deficit to 3-1.
It was the first time a German had scored on Finland at the World Juniors since 29 December 2010, when Tobias Rieder beat Joni Ortio in a 5-1 loss. (To reinforce how long ago that was, the Pittsburgh Penguins fell 2-1 to the New York Islanders on the same date in Sidney Crosby’s last game before he suffered a concussion from a blindside hit from Washington’s David Steckel in the Winter Classic on 1 January 2011.)
Germany kept coming. On a 2-on-1, Peterka skimmed a cross-ice pass under the stick of top Finnish D-man Ville Heinola to Stutzle, and the 2020 DEL rookie of the year with Adler Mannheim capitalized at 10:35.
"I think those were really cheap goals for them, but it's the first game," said Heinola. "We have a lot to learn from this and we have to be better next time."
Finland, however, had an answer just 1:18 later to squash Germany's comeback hopes. Niemela stepped in and flung a wrister past Riefensee from the top of the faceoff circles to restore Finland's two-goal lead.
At 13:52, Nikkanen got lucky on the man advantage when, standing on the goal line, he bounced the puck in off defenceman Jan Munzenberg's skate to put Finland up 5-2.
In the third period, Elias, unmolested in front, converted his own rebound at 8:13, but that was as close as Germany would get.
"For sure, it's a tough situation, but in the end we can't change it," Stutzle said. "We need to see the positive things, and I think we played a great game today. I'm really proud of the guys."
All-time, Finland now boasts 12 wins and zero losses versus Germany with a 58-7 total goal difference.
Adversity for the Germans predates their Atlantic crossing. Forward Lukas Reichel, drafted 17th overall by Chicago this year, and goalie Tobias Ancicka, the presumptive starter, were among those who were ruled unavailable back home and did not travel to Edmonton.
In Germany, Abstreiter has either played for or coached teams with nicknames like Cannibals, Mad Dogs, Huskies, and Tigers. The 50-year-old, who appeared at five top-level Worlds and two World Juniors, will need to channel that spirit of aggressive determination if his boys are to earn a quarter-final berth in Edmonton.
Life doesn’t get any easier for Germany, which will battle defending champion Canada on Boxing Day. Finland next faces the Swiss, who lost their opener 1-0 to Slovakia, on Sunday.
"We know that Team Canada will fly in their first game and they're going to come out really hard," said Abstreiter. "It's important for us now that we recover and make tomorrow a step in the right direction."