Finland’s top line drove the offence on Day One at Rogers Place. Joakim Kemell scored twice in the first period and added two third-period assists. As for his linemates, Aatu Raty shone with a goal and three assists, while captain Roni Hirvonen totalled a goal and two assists.
Brad Lambert and Kasper Puutio had the other Finnish goals. On balance, it was a composed, mature effort from the favourites, who controlled the play at both ends.
"We played well, but of course we think we can improve and play better next game," said Kemell, with Finland set to face the Czechs on Thursday. "But for now we’re happy with how today went."
Klavs Veinsbergs replied for Latvia.
Coach Antti Pennanen gave goalie Leevi Merilainen the first start for Finland, while Pennanen's Latvian counterpart Artis Abols handed the net to Bruno Bruveris. Finland outshot Latvia 39-20.
"We’re not happy because we lost, but the coach was mad because we played really well for 55 minutes but not in the last five," said Latvian captain Ralfs Bergmanis.
The Finns are aiming to win the World Juniors for the sixth time in history (1987, 1998, 2014, 2016, 2019). Under Pennanen, they captured the bronze medal at the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton.
The Latvians are competing here in place of Russia, which is currently disqualified from IIHF competition. Latvia’s best previous World Junior result was eighth place in 2009 in Ottawa.
This tournament will be a learning experience for the Latvians. The team features three 2022 NHL draft picks in forwards Dans Locmelis (Boston, fourth round, 119th overall), Sandis Vilmanis (Florida, fifth round, 157th overall), and Veinbergs (Tampa Bay, seventh round, 224th overall). However, there isn’t that high-end talent like, say, in 1991, when Sandis Ozolins and Sergejs Zoltoks both suited up at the World Juniors.
For Aatu Raty, registering the primary assist marked his first World Junior point since scoring in a 7-1 romp over Kazakhstan on 29 December 2019.
Raty was not selected for Finland’s 2021 World Junior bronze medal after struggling with Karpat in Liiga competition. Plucked in the second round by the New York Islanders (52nd overall) in 2021, the crafty centre rebounded for 41 points in 40 games with Jukurit Mikkeli in 2021-22, and is favoured by some oddsmakers to lead these World Juniors in scoring.
At 11:29, the speedy Kemell, a JYP product drafted in the first round by the Nashville Predators (17th overall) in 2022, tallied his second goal. He converted a cross-ice pass from Hirvonen in tight on a 2-on-1.
"We have a great group of skilled players and want to beat other teams with our skating and skill," said Kemell. "That’s our game."
Latvia generated some late-period power play pressure with Finnish defenceman Ruben Rafkin off for cross-checking in the defensive zone, but couldn't capitalize.
In the second period, Finland coolly cashed in with its first man advantage at 1:52. From the high slot, Lambert one-timed home Roby Jarventie's cross-ice feed. Lambert, the first-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets (30th overall) this year, had a quiet 2021-22 Liiga season split between JYP and Pelicans. Shots like that will fuel the hopes of Jets fans craving a new Finnish sniper in the tradition of Teemu Selanne and Patrik Laine.
The Finns kept coming, outshooting Latvia 17-7 in the middle frame. At 18:01, Hirvonen took Raty's pass on the rush, feinted to the backhand, and beat Bruveris high for a four-goal lead.
In the third period, Veinbergs gave Latvian fans something to cheer about with a nice power play marker. The Zemgale attacker spoiled Meerilainen's shutout bid, playing catch with Bogdans Hodass at the centre point before launching a one-timer from the right faceoff circle at 1:28.
In the late stages, the Finns thought they had their fifth goal when Hirvonen, from behind the net, set up Topi Niemela, but the play was video-reviewed and the officials ruled that the puck went off the cross bar without crossing the goal line.
It didn't matter. Raty made it 5-1 with 4:21 left, swooping down left wing to fling a wrister past Bruveris on the short side.
The Latvian goalie kept battling, making a superb blocker save with under two minutes remaining to deny Kemell's hat trick bid. But Puutio rounded out the scoring with a shot from the blueline that eluded Bruveris at 18:40.
"it’s only one game," said Bergmanis. "We want to win here, so we’re going to keep trying our best."
Coincidentally, this was a matchup between the two nations that will co-host next year’s IIHF World Championship in Tampere and Riga (12-28 May, 2023). Latvia hosted the tournament in Riga in 2021, and the Finns, who are also reigning Olympic champions, won the 2022 Worlds gold medal with a 4-3 overtime victory to dethrone Canada in Tampere in May.
This game took place on 9 August – 34 years to the day since the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, ending his productive partnership with his Finnish linemates Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen. These U20 Finns, for obvious reasons, aren’t as legendary individually, but they've had no problem generating offence so far.
Dating back to their first encounter at the 2009 World Juniors, Finland now holds a perfect 5-0 record against Latvia with a 22-5 goal difference.