Mikael Granlund’s power-play goal with 2:52 to play broke a 1-1 tie with Latvia, as Finland went on to win its second game in as many nights on home ice in Tampere, 2-1.
It was Granlund’s first game, however, having just joined the team from the Nashville Predators, recently eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Granlund’s an unbelievable player, like we saw from him today,” said Finnish forward Jere Sallinen. “It’s a lot of travelling for him and he jumps in and gets in the battles. You could see that the guys on the other team tried to take him a little bit harder but he figured it out and found a way to win the game for us.”
It was the second point of the game Granlund, Sakari Manninen and defenceman Mikko Lehtonen, who all combined on Manninen’s second-period tying goal as well.
“Of course it’s a big help, he’s a superstar player,” Sallinen continued. “He’s a leader and he’s going to bring a lot to our power play and on the 5-on-5 he can score some goals and make some good plays. I think he played very well today.”
Rudolf Balcers had previously opened the scoring for Latvia in the first period.
“Tough, you know. It (censored) sucks, sorry for the language,” dejected Latvian captain Rodrigo Abols said after the game. “If there’s one thing, I’m so proud of the team that played today. I think we showed tremendous character against a team like Finland.”
This was the second of games on back-to-back days for both of these teams and it showed at times, with a sluggish pace that typically suits both styles of play. Finland outshot Latvia 20-17 on the night, with Harri Sateri making 16 saves for Finland in his first start, while Elvis Merzlikins stopped 18 in his second-straight game.
“A lot of times in tournaments like this there are one-goal games, they’re close all the way through and this was no different,” said Finnish captain Valtteri Filppula. “They’re a good team, they defended really well, the goalies played great in both nets and I’m just happy that we were able to get that power-play goal at the end.”
From a Latvian perspective, the first period was nearly perfect. They managed the tempo well, outshot Finland 4-2 and scored the period’s only goal just shy of the nine-minute mark. Rushing in 2-on-1, Ronalds Kenins fed Balcers and Sateri was left no chance, sliding across helplessly.
Late in the period, Balcers nearly helped Finland equalize. With Merzlikins gone to the bench for a sixth attacker on a delayed penalty, the San Jose Sharks winger attempted to pass the puck back to defenceman Kristaps Zile, but it went off his stick and slid back towards the open Latvian goal, just grazing the outside of the post and going wide.
After an anemic offence in the first period, the Finns came out with a lot more energy in the second period and pressed hard for the equalizer, but Merzlikins was equal to the task, making a great save off a shot from the point from Ville Pokka four minutes in. But the Latvian netminder couldn’t hold out for ever.
On a Finnish power play just past the game’s midpoint, Granlund’s shot deflected wide, but rebounded off the end boards to Manninen. Even with the goal line, Manninen didn’t have much of an angle but managed to bank the shot in off the skate of a sprawling Merzlikins.
A few minutes later, Finland had a chance to take the lead on another power play but failed to capitalize. Then the Latvians began the third period on a power play of their own, and like they did yesterday against the USA, entered the final frame with a good burst of energy. Against the Americans, they got the first seven shots of the period and today against the Finns it was four, with the home fans whistling their displeasure while their team was hemmed in its own zone.
“I feel like yesterday we didn’t play that bad but for periods of time we had a lapses of concentration or we didn’t follow the speed as much so that’s where it went wrong,” said Abols. “Today I think we did our homework pretty well, we knew how Finland play and we’ve had tight games against them in the past few years in the World Championships and in the Olympics this year but unfortunately they just seem to get the best of us each time.”
With 13:30 to play, Balcers carried the puck into the Finnish zone and found Andris Dzerins streaking to the net. Dzerins re-directed the pass off the outside of the post, as the sellout crowd let out a collective sigh of relief.
But as the minutes ticked away, Finland turned up the pressure and eventually Martins Dzierkals was called for holding with 3:10 to play, giving the hosts an opening, which they took just 18 seconds later.
Granlund took a pass from Lehtonen at the top of the circle and let go a wrister that beat Merzlikins to the short side, giving the nervous crowd a chance to finally erupt again.
There was still time left and Harijs Vitolins pulled his goalie for a sixth attacker, but the Finns killed off the rest of the time.
After playing on each of the first two days of this tournament, both teams now get a well-deserved break. Both teams are back in action on Monday; first Latvia plays Norway and then Finland takes on the USA in the nightcap.