"This is something that this team and these players prepare for all year, and we haven't had the opportunity to do so in the past two years," said U.S. defender Megan Keller. "So for me, it means a lot to be able to accomplish that. And we're just going to go into that game accepting the challenge and grateful for the opportunity that we have in front of us to fight for another gold medal. "
The Americans, who won their first Olympic title in 20 years in 2018, are looking for their sixth Women's Worlds straight gold medal.
The Finns, who earned a surprising silver medal in 2019, will have to console themselves by trying to win their 13th bronze medal of all time. This wasn't how they hoped it would play out.
Finnish coach Pasi Mustonen nonetheless saw positives: "Our plan was naturally to have the 0-0 situation after the first period. We succeeded. In fact, in the third, we knew we are in good physical condition. We had no problem with that part. So we weren't afraid at all that we'd go down in our speed, and the last period showed that. Our problem is the second period. We have a lot of young players and we had problems. The USA won the game in the second period. They were better."
It certainly wasn't a carbon copy of the 2019 final in Espoo. In one of the most famous and hotly contested games in women’s hockey history, the Finns lost 2-1 in a shootout to the Americans. The hosts thought they’d won when Petra Nieminen scored in overtime, but the goal was disallowed after an extended video review.
On Monday, although under siege and worn down by the relentless American forecheck, the Finns had great chances that they weren't able to convert, especially on the power play.
"We need more shots," said Finnish star Susanna Tapani. "I think in this game we had a little more than the previous games, but we need more shots. On the power play, we need to get the shots to the net."
In net, the U.S.’s Nicole Hensley, with 14 saves, got her second shutout against Finland at these Women's Worlds. She made 10 saves in a 3-0 win in the group stage, her only previous start. Hensley, who played in 2017’s 3-2 overtime gold medal win over Canada, relieved Alex Cavallini halfway through the 5-1 loss to the Canadians to end this year’s group stage and in the third period of the 10-2 quarter-final shellacking of Japan.
U.S. coach Joel Johnson praised Hensley's ability to come in and shine in the semi-final: "I thought she was fantastic. She was sound and solid positionally. She made big saves in random spots when they kind of jumped up and we've had momentum for a bit. And all of a sudden we've got to rely on her for a big save. So she was just perfect."
Mustonen came back with netminder Anni Keisala, who blanked both the ROC team and the Czechs and was outstanding again. Meeri Raisanen faced the U.S. in the group stage.
Final shots favoured the U.S. 33-14.
Coming into this showdown, both teams’ top lines – Finland’s Nieminen, Tapani, and Michelle Karvinen and the U.S.’s Coyne Schofield, Brianna Decker, and Hilary Knight – had produced 15 points apiece. However, the four-line American depth was clearly greater, and that's what won out.
"It's a crazy experience here, but this team's special," Murphy said. "It's been a heck of a road, but we're here and we deserve it, and it's gonna be a ton of fun."
In a scoreless first period, the U.S. dominated overall with speed and physicality, but the Finns got their opportunities.
Finnish defender Minttu Tuominen was dinged for delay of game just 1:32 in after flipping the puck over the glass in her own zone. During the 5-on-4, Keisala stood her ground on early rebound opportunities for Coyne Schofield, the speedy U.S. captain. Keisala stayed strong when Grace Zumwinkle and Carpenter came calling from the slot. The Finns didn’t register their first shot till 7:30, but their battle level was high.
Tapani hailed what Keisala has given Finland in goal all tournament long: "She was awesome and so calm. She gave us so much power in every game. We trusted her and it was so easy to play in front of her."
Unusually, the top Finnish line got U.S. forwards Hayley Scamurra and Jesse Compher to take penalties on the same sequence, leading to a 5-on-3 for the Finns. However, due to the smart, gritty defending of veterans like Lee Stecklein and Decker, Suomi couldn’t get anything going.
"Our veterans really stepped up and killed penalties and got us out of some jams," Johnson said.
American blueliner Savannah Harmon got the same delay of game penalty as Tuominen with 2:20 left in the opening stanza. Noora Tulus got the best chance with the woman advantage, ringing one off Hensley’s mask and sending the rebound just past the prone netminder’s far post.
To start the second period, the Americans completely hemmed the Finns in their zone.
As against Japan, Carpenter opened the scoring, with an assist going to Amanda Kessel, Carpenter, the Russian Women’s Hockey League scoring leader with KRS Vanke Rays, battled in front of the net to tip Lee Stecklein’s point drive past Keisala at 3:23. It was the first goal Finland had allowed since Knight’s 3-0 marker at 13:02 of the group stage defeat.
Midway, Keisala continued to give her team a chance, stoning Decker in close. But the 24-year-old Ilves Tampere netminder couldn't prevent an opportunistic Murphy from capitalizing on a solo jaunt. Hiirikoski tried to stop Keller’s long pass, but the puck bounced off her stick and Murphy stickhandled in to squeeze it through Keisala's pads at 15:17. It was her second goal of the tournament.
"Finland's team was on a change," said Murphy. "Everyone was screaming, 'Weak side!', and Megan saw me. She just drilled the puck over and the defender mishandled it, and I stuck with it. But it was a good finish and a nice pass by Megan."
Incidentally, Murphy, a Women’s Worlds rookie, is the only skater to score in three consecutive U18 Women’s Worlds gold medal games (2018-20) besides Coyne Schofield (2008-10).
The Finns couldn’t get a shot in the middle frame until Hiirikoski launched a backhander on net with under three minutes left. Keisala came out to challenge Keller on a great chance just before the buzzer sounded.
Keisala stayed strong early in the third, foiling Scamurra on a rush and Carpenter from the slot. The Finns nearly got on the board when Tapani dipsy-doodled into the U.S. zone and sent a slick pass to Elisa Holopainen in tight. Keller drew a penalty on the play and Mustonen called his timeout to strategize. It was to no avail.
"Especially on that penalty, I took at the end, I thought my teammates did a great job of killing that one off," said Keller. "Nicole was a standout back in the net. She was a rock back there."
The Finnish coach, in his characteristic style, pulled Keisala five times down the stretch, but his team still couldn't generate anything. Coyne Schofield scored an empty-netter with 2:53 left to seal the deal.
Johnson said he was happy with his squad's performance heading into the gold medal game: "We're playing fast. We're playing free. We're having success. We're organized on the faceoffs. We're predictable for one another. So that's what we want to do."
Asked about the motivation for the bronze medal game, Hiirikoski said: "I think it will be really high tomorrow. We have a chance to play together one more time, and it has been a long journey. We have been over a month together now, and I think we will really enjoy putting this awesome lion jersey on tomorrow and be ready for the fight."
The result gives the U.S. an all-time Women’s Worlds record against Finland of 19 wins, one tie, and one loss.
Anticipating a bronze-medal matchup with Switzerland, Mustonen identified his team's key to success: "Definitely the defensive game we have, the furious backchecking and filling up in the slot when they come in, not giving the scoring chances for Switzerland. I believe we can score one goal, as long as we don't let them score. It's the defensive game. That's our philosophy all the time."