Fresh off a heartbreaking semi-final loss to rival Sweden last night, Finland regrouped and beat Czechia 4-1 to win the bronze medal at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Landshut, Germany.
It was a closer game than the score indicates, however. The score was 1-1 after one period and remained 2-1 until the last six minutes.
“It feels great!” said forward Aleksanteri Kaskimaki, who assisted on the winning goal. “After a tough loss yesterday, we knew that we had to bounce back hard and we did. We played a very good game and it feels very nice.”
“It’s not a good feeling because we wanted third place, but it was a good game and I think we played hard,” said Czech centre Matyas Sapovaliv.
Finland outshot Czechia 34-27 in the game and both goalies were strong despite facing a lot of work in yesterday’s semi-finals. Michael Schnattinger stopped 30 of 33 shots he faced, while Topias Lenonen stopped 26 of 27.
For the most part, it was a tight-checking, defensive game with not many penalties. Two power plays for the Finns in the first period, one for the Czechs in the second, and that was it. Neither team cashed in on their chances. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the first game of the tournament that Czech offensive stars Jiri Kulich, Eduard Sale and Tomas Hamara were held without any points.
“We know the Czech team very well,” said Finnish head coach Mika Marttila. “We didn’t have any special plan for those players but we studied the team, we knew their strong points and one thing was we wanted to avoid penalties, and we succeeded in that.”
Captain Jere Lassila figured in on all four Finnish goals with two goals and two assists. And Joakim Kemell, who watched helplessly from the penalty box when Sweden scored the winning goal with 32 seconds to play, was a driving force in his team’s win with two goals and one assist. He finishes the tournament with six goals and eight points.
“They played well, and when they got the lead they started to play different hockey, just like their U20 team and their men’s team do,” said Czech coach Jakub Petr. At the end of the day, they deserved it more than we did.”
Each team scored once in an evenly played first period.
Just after killing off the game’s first penalty, Czechia struck first at 5:27. On a 2-on-1 rush, Adam Bares fed Ondrej Becher, who beat Leinonen high to the short side before the Finnish goalie could slide across and get a blocker on it.
“They scored so early that it didn’t create any extra pressure and we’ve practiced for these situations,” said Marttila. “This tournament we have experience coming from behind.”
The Finns came back hard on the next shift and Kaskimaki hit the cross bar. They tied it at 9:05 when Aron Kiviharju’s shot from the point was tipped by Kemell, who also served as a screen for Michael Schnattinger.
In the last two minutes of the period, Finland had a great chance to take the lead on a late power play and buzzed around the Czech zone. Kasper Halttunen called for the backdoor pass and just missed the net on the one-timer with a wide-open net to shoot at.
The Finns took their first lead of the game with 6:54 to go in the second period. On a 3-on-2 rush, Becher checked Lassila as he shot, and the Finnish captain slid into Schnattinger. That slowed the Czech goalie just enough for Kemell to slide in the rebound on the far side.
“We got a turnover in the neutral zone and I carried the puck into the zone and just wanted to put it on net,” said Kaskimaki. “We got a lucky bounce and Kemell put the puck in.”
On his two talented linemates, Kaskimaki said: “They both had awesome tournaments. They both can play good hockey. Kemell likes to shoot the puck a lot and Jere likes to do the playmaking. I just try to go to the net and skate hard.”
Czechia’s best chance of the middle frame went to Kulich, the tournament’s goal-scoring leader, who had a chance to tie it just over a minute later on a breakaway but was stopped by Leinonen.
“At the start, I think we played more defence but later we changed it and we tried to forecheck more and play offence,” said Sapovaliv. “I think it worked a little bit but we didn’t score.”
The Czechs started the third period with good pressure but, as the minutes wore on, it became harder to penetrate the Finnish zone. As the minutes ticked away, it was Finland that started to press offensively. For a sequence of well over a minute, the Czechs were stuck in their own end, unable to change due to a series of icing calls against them.
Finally, with 5:02 to play, Lassila stuck a dagger with a shot from the slot over Schnattinger's shoulder. Kemell set it up by winning a battle along the boards.
Finally gaining an attacking zone faceoff with 3:31 to play, coach Jiri Petr called a timeout and pulled Schnattinger for a sixth attacker.
“We tried to score a goal and we continued to believe that we could do it, even at the end when they went up by two goals,” said Hamara.
But they didn’t even get a shot on goal the rest of the way. Instead, Lassila scored his second of the game into the empty net with 49.8 seconds to play, removing whatever doubt remained.
For the Finns, it is their first medal at the U18 Worlds since winning gold in 2018. It is their fifth bronze and 12th medal overall.