Finns top Group B
by Andy Potts|24 MAY 2022
Finnish goal scorer Toni Rajala (#25) celebrates with Mikael Seppala (#50).
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Finland wrapped up an impressive Group B campaign with a 3-0 victory over Czechia in Tampere. Tuesday’s victory secures top spot in the preliminary round and gives Jukka Jalonen’s team a quarter-final match-up against Slovakia here on Thursday.

Joel Armia and Sakari Manninen got things moving in the first period before Toni Rajala extended the advantage in the second.

At the other end, Jussi Olkinuora saw Finland to its fourth shutout in seven games. It’s now 198 minutes, 27 seconds since Joel Kellman scored on the Finns to tie that game at 2-2. Olkinuora was named Finland's player of the game and received a huge ovation from the Tampere crowd. The 31-year-old began his career as a junior at local team Tappara, playing for the U16s back in 2005/06.

Harri Pesonen, who assisted the opening goal, paid tribute to a solid defensive effort in this game and throughout the tournament.

"The defence was solid and Jussi in the net was the last man standing," he said. "I’m confident going forward with this team. If you beat Czechia, you have to play well because when you look at their roster, they have lots of great players and they play a good system."

Going into the game, the Czechs had a chance of taking second spot in the group with a win in regulation but they rarely threatened to disturb the host nation. Now they head to Helsinki, where Germany awaits in the knock-out phase.

Defender Jan Scotka had no complaints about the outcome. "I think they played a great game," he said. "They scored on their chances and we didn’t score on our chances because they were really good defensively today. That’s hockey." 

Finland had just one change from the team that defeated Austria 3-0 last time out. Defenceman Ville Pokka, a goal scorer in February’s Olympic final, took the place of Sami Vatanen.
Finland vs Czechia - 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship
FIN CZE 24 MAY 2022
The Czechs had two notable adjustments. Goaltender Marek Langhamer came into the starting line-up. He got a good reception from a Tampere crowd more used to seeing him in the colours of Ilves, one of two Liiga teams in the city. There was also a return to action for young defenceman David Jiricek, who replaced Radim Simek. Michal Jordan was also absent, leaving Czechia with just six D-men.

Finland was quicker to settle into its game and was good value for its 10th minute opening goal. And it was a play that embodied much of what makes this team so dangerous. Pressing in the D zone forced a turnover. Pesonen was alert to the opportunity, swiftly releasing Armia with a pass that cut the advanced defenceman Tomas Kundratek out of the play.

Faced with only one opponent to run at, Armia advanced at speed, sending Jan Scotka to the floor with a swivel of the hips before using precision rather than power to beat Langhamer over the blocker.

Armia is enjoying life with Team Finland in this kind of form. "It feels good but whoever we play against, we need to play the same way," he said. "That’s gonna give us the result that we want."

Finnish pressing continued to disconcert the Czechs and a similar breakaway almost gave Mikael Granlund a chance to double the lead. This time, though, Langhamer was not tested as Granlund’s stick snapped under the weight of his shot and the puck squirted to safety.

Soon, though, Granlund was playing a big role in the second Finnish goal as the first power play of the game delivered the goods. He got the puck to the net where Jere Sallinen moved it on for Manninen to score at the back door.

"It was kind of a weird game, I would say," offered Czechia's Jiri Smejkal. "Not many scoring chances. We didn’t play that well and we probably didn’t deserve to win. They went up 2-0 in the first and we couldn’t come back." 

There was little sign of the Czech offence in the opening frame but Olkinuora had to be alert late on to stop a Michal Kempny long shot and then deny Michael Spacek on the rebound.

Kempny conceded that Finland was the better team in Tuesday night's game, but added that he's enjoying his decision to come late to the World Championship.

"I feel like we’re getting better every game," Kempny said. "I got here a little bit later but I’m really happy to be here on this team. We've  got a a really good group of guys, it’s exciting to be here in front of this crowd."

That late chance in the first period offered some encouragement to the Czechs and, along with the words of Kari Jalonen – a Finn who coached the Leijonat to the 2016 final in Moscow – there was a visible improvement at the start of the second period.

Early in the frame David Krejci a good pass right in front of the net, but Olkinuora came up with the answer. Then Jiri Smejkal got a good look in similar circumstances but was denied by the goalie’s pads as the Czechs started with a flurry of shots at the former Metallurg man.

However, Finland's defensive system is possibly the strongest in international hockey right now. Pesonen shared what it's like to be a part of it.

"I think it’s that knowledge of how the players see the game and just our commitment level – how much guys really want to buy into the system," he said. "And then you still have your freedom with the puck to create stuff. But I think the biggest thing is the commitment, having all the guys going in the same direction. I think that’s our biggest key to success."

Finland soon reasserted itself in this game and when Filip Hronek was pressured into a loose pass, Marko Anttila was presented with a great opportunity. Langhamer got behind that shot to keep Czechia in the game.

Moments later, though, the third goal arrived. Miro Heiskanen showed off his attacking props, dancing to the net only to be thwarted by Langhamer’s pads. The rebound went deep and Mikael Seppala picked up the puck and sent a diagonal feed to Rajala for a tap-in at the far post.

That was the end of the scoring, with both teams seemingly happy to conserve some energy ahead of the bigger tests that await in the quarter-finals. However, there was a flurry of late activity when the Czechs withdrew Langhamer with almost three minutes to play and enjoyed a 6-on-4 set-up at the end after Manninen was called for hooking. But the home team held out, despite Anttila spurning an empty-net chance, to secure Olkinuora's fourth shut-out at the tournament.

That had most of the 11,673 crowd singing the goalie's name as he collected his player of the game award - and in this form, he could be adding more hardware to his collection by the end of the tournament.
Finland vs Czechia - 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship