Can Finland end America’s reign?
by Lucas Aykroyd|30 AUG 2021
After a 3-0 round-robin loss to the U.S., Finnish stars Jenni Hiirikoski (#6) and Susanna Tapani (#77) hope to prevail in Monday's semi-finals at the 2021 Women's Worlds.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
After the U.S. defeated Japan 10-2 in the 2021 Women’s Worlds quarter-finals, all-time U.S. points leader Hilary Knight didn’t hesitate when asked about the impact of falling 5-1 to cross-border rival Canada in the round-robin.

“It is a great reminder that when you show up to the arena, it’s always 50-50,” Knight said. “And you have to work for every single edge, every single opportunity.”

If the Finns are to upset the five-time defending champion Americans in Monday’s early semi-final and rewrite the surreal, heartbreaking script that unfolded in the 2019 gold medal game in Espoo, they’ll have to hope that Knight and her teammates a) used up all their goals against Japan b) are so eager to get back at Canada in the final that they somehow forget to take Finland seriously enough.

Both a) and b) are long shots, of course.
As much as both semi-finalists insist that 14 April 2019 is ancient history, it’s still recent enough. Nobody’s forgotten how coach Pasi Mustonen’s team could be the defending champs right now if a video review had not wiped out Petra Nieminen’s overtime goal following a collision between U.S. goalie Alex Cavallini (then Rigsby) and onrushing Finnish captain Jenni Hiirikoski.

Instead, the Americans left Espoo as controversial victors after forward Annie Pankowski – who was not centralized this year – added the 2-1 shootout winner to her second-period goal. The stunned Finns settled for silver medals, but received 7,000 Euro bonuses from the Finnish government, the same amount they would have gotten for officially winning the gold medal.

The ever-candid Mustonen has reiterated throughout the 2021 tournament that this is a young, rebuilding team and that it could take up to five years for the Finns to achieve the same strength as they showed in Espoo. But – especially now, having reached the final four – they do intend to come away with a medal.

Reaching the final, though, requires things to go almost perfectly on Monday. Head-to-head, the U.S. has won 18 all-time Women's Worlds games with one tie and one loss (1-0 in overtime in 2008).

Suomi cannot get into a run-and-gun affair with the Stars and Stripes. Through five games apiece, coach Joel Johnson’s team has outscored the Finns 23-14 and outshot them 213-82.

Yes, 10 of those American goals were against Japan. But to put it in perpective, that same Japanese team beat the Czech Republic 3-2 on Sunday. The Finns only mustered one (fairly lucky) goal by 16-year-old Sanni Vanhanen in their 1-0 quarter-final win over the Czechs.

Offensively, the Finns are a one-line team right now. Playing about 20 minutes per game, Petra Nieminen (5+1=6), Susanna Tapani (3+1=4), and Michelle Karvinen (0+5=5) have generated eight of Finland’s 14 goals. Blanked against the Czechs, they need to step up big-time against the Americans. Tapani, of course, scored Finland’s goal in regulation in the 2019 final on Nieminen’s set-up. 

A contribution from the second unit of Noora Tulus (0+3=3) with second-time Worlds participants Elisa Holopainen (1+1=2) and Viivi Vainikka (1+0=1) would go a long way, too.

Because with the U.S., it’s not just the world-famous top trio of captain Kendall Coyne Schofield (1+3=4), Brianna Decker (2+3=5), and Knight (4+2=6). All four lines can burn you. Alex Carpenter and Amanda Kessel heated up for a pair of goals against the Japanese. And never mind the tower of power that is rookie Grace Zumwinkle (4+2=6). 

The U.S. blue line – led by perennial minutes monster Lee Stecklein, who’s quietly recorded a personal Women’s Worlds high in points (2+3=5) – has combined for 18 points to Finland’s seven points, three of which are Hiirikoski’s.

So defence – as in preventing goals – is key for Suomi. They surrendered a goal in each period in their 3-0 round-robin loss to the Americans. The Finns were also dominated on faceoffs, with Decker leading the way with 16 wins on 21 draws. In the semi-final, they cannot allow the Americans to barge to the net and score in the dirty areas, as against Japan. Taking away the neutral zone and being quick on the counterattack are must-have ingredients. It can't be said enough.

Are special teams likely to be a difference-maker? Based on the trends we’ve observed in Calgary, probably not. The U.S. (19 minors) and Finland (16 minors) are the tournament’s least-penalized nations and the only two with perfect penalty kills.

The Finns, who scored two of their three power-play goals in the 6-0 win over Switzerland, could have earned Group A points in their 5-3 opening loss to Canada if they’d been able to cash in more than once with the woman advantage. They should be praying for the U.S. to stay relatively dormant (2-for-17) – it’s hard to believe all 10 goals versus Japan were at even strength.

If there’s one area where Finland could outpace the Americans in this uphill battle, it’s in net. That was a question mark heading into Calgary. However, Anni Keisala (1.35 GAA, 95.2 save percentage) and Meeri Raisanen (1.50 GAA, 93.7 save percentage) have answered any doubters who thought they couldn’t step up in the absence of Noora Raty, 2019’s superheroine.

It’s hard to get a read on top U.S. goalie Alex Cavallini and backup Nicole Hensley. They’re both excellent netminders who have won Women’s Worlds finals. But U.S. fans can’t help but be disquieted by the fact that Cavallini has recorded an 80.0 save percentage in her last two outings: four goals on 20 shots against Canada, two goals on 10 shots against Japan. Hensley has only faced 18 shots in this tournament – 10 of which, incidentally, came in the 3-0 win over Finland.

On Saturday, Knight reflected on losing to Canada: “It’s humbling when you lose, and it’s even more humbling when there’s a lot more pride on the line.”

The Finns will bring a ton of pride to this semi-final showdown, especially the returning veterans from Espoo. But it’ll take near-perfect execution to end America’s reign, since the margin for error is as small as it’s ever been. The Finns also need the Americans to come out a little flatter than normal.

Otherwise, Finland will be playing for its all-time record 13th bronze medal on Tuesday instead of its first gold medal.