Finnish head coach Pasi Mustonen complimented the Czechs: "During my years as a national team coach, this was absolutely the best European team we've ever played against, the best performance against us. This was a team victory. We had to battle to win the game."
Sanni Vanhanen, Finland's youngest player at age 16, scored the eventual second-period winner.
Heavy Czech pressure yielded a tripping penalty on Vanhanen. But when the power play expired, the Tappara Tampere prospect jumped out of the box to get a breakaway. She couldn’t deke out Czech goalie Klara Peslarova, but the puck bounced in off a backchecking Tereza Vanisova at 15:01, and Finland took a 1-0 lead it wouldn't relinquish.
"I kind of saved it on the blocker side and tried to play it somehow with my blocker," said Peslarova. "Then I hit Tereza and it just bounced off my pad and into the goal.
"Now it feels very amazing," Vanhanen said afterwards. "In the moment, I didn't feel like nothing, but now I am really happy."
For Finland, it's now time for revenge.
In 2019, the U.S. controversially defeated Finland 2-1 in a shootout in the gold medal game. Petra Nieminen’s overtime goal was called back after a 12-minute video review in Espoo. Still, Mustonen’s Naisleijonat won the first silver medal in IIHF women’s hockey history – and the hearts of Finnish hockey fans.
Now the Finns have a chance to book their tickets to the final for the second consecutive time and spoil America’s quest for the six-peat.
Musonen downplayed the revenge angle: "We are motivated. I don't believe it has anything to do with Espoo. Naturally, it was a bitter, bitter experience. We want to play as well as possible, and we're building a new team. So the locker room is filled with players who want to have success. But we don't think back that way."
"Anni played a wonderful season last year," Mustonen said of the 24-year-old Ilves netminder, whose lone Women's Worlds experience before this tournament was the third period of a 6-1 loss to Canada in 2016. "She's played solid all the time with the national team in our camps, so we didn't have to hesitate. Naturally, she was for the first time in a really stressful situation on this level. But, well, the rest is history."
The Czechs, who topped Group B with a perfect record and a 16-3 goal difference, still have a chance to improve on their peak sixth-place finishes in 2016 and 2019. Placement games get underway on Sunday.
"In the second period, we got away a little bit from our game, just because we just wanted it so much," said Czech coach Tomas Pacina. "That's heartbreaking. We needed to be a little bit more cool and sticking to our game. But you know, there is not one single person today that didn't leave their heart and their soul on the ice. I consider myself absolutely fortunate to be part of this team as the coach. Fantastic group, maybe the best team I've ever coached in my life."
In Monday’s other semi-final, Canada, coming off a 7-0 quarter-final romp over Germany, will face the surprising Swiss, who rallied to oust the ROC team 3-2 in overtime.
For a good chunk of the night, the Czechs took it to the Finns, who had wiped out the ROC team (4-0) and Switzerland (6-0) to wrap up the group stage. After combining for 15 points in those games, Finland’s top line with Petra Nieminen, Susanna Tapani, and Michelle Karvinen was unable to continue its torrid pace.
Finland remains the only team besides the U.S. with a perfect penalty-killing record in Calgary. That ability proved crucial against the Czechs, who went 0-for-4 in the quarter-final despite fabulous chances.
In the scoreless first period, both teams came out with speed, looking loose and confident. At 5:31, Sini Karjalainen took the first penalty for tripping up Klara Hymlarova in the neutral zone.
On the ensuing power play, the Czechs stormed Keisala’s net, forcing her to deny Hymlarova and Daniela Pejsova from close range. During the group stage, the Czechs had the most productive power play, clicking at 5-for-18 (27.7 percent).
"I thought we played really well," said Czech captain Alena Mills. "Especially in the first period, we didn't give them an inch of ice. On the power play, we definitely had some good shots and had screens in front of the goalie. There's the puck bouncing right in front of the goalie. A centimeter to the right or the left, it could have gotten in, but it just didn't."
Four minutes into the second period, Keisala stayed sharp to deny forward Michaela Pejzlova with her right pad on a rebound. Moments later at the other end, Peslarova said no to Nieminen from the slot.
With Finland up 1-0, both teams intensified their pace in the third period, although much of the action came in the neutral zone. In the last 10 minutes, it was end-to-end, and after Nieminen nearly set up Karvinen off the rush, Tapani just missed on her follow-up wraparound attempt.
With under four minutes left, Vendula Pribylova tripped up Nieminen in the neutral zone. It was a costly time to take a penalty. Tereza Vanisova had a good chance shorthanded, but couldn't find the equalizer on the backhand.
The Czechs pulled Peslarova for the sixth attacker with 30 seconds left and called their timeout with a faceoff coming up in the Finnish end. But the Finns withstood the final flurry.
"I think our team did really good today," said Keisala. "We battled, especially that third period. I think the Czechs didn't get that many chances when they took the goalie away. So I'm very proud of our team."
Pacina dressed a slimmed-down lineup with just 11 forwards and six defenders. (In the 2-0 group-closing win over Germany, he went with 12 forwards and seven defenders.) Sitting out versus Finland were forward Lenka Serdar and defender Tereza Radova.
Discussing his team's motivation for the placement games, Pacina said: "With [Group A and Group B], it's extremely important that you play in [Group A] because you have way lighter quarter-finals. If you stay in [Group] B, you always get Canada, US or Finland in the quarter-finals. So for us, it's extremely important to play Japan well tomorrow, and hopefully continue on to play Tuesday."
At the Women’s Worlds, these nations have only ever clashed in quarter-finals. The Finns won 5-0 in Kamloops in 2016 and 3-1 in Espoo in 2019. Based on how tight Saturday's game was, we can expect more playoff encounters in the future.