U.S. tops host Finland in opener
by Lucas AYKROYD|12 MAY 2023
Cutter Gauthier (#19, left) celebrates with teammates after scoring the U.S.'s first goal in a 4-1 opening win over host Finland at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Tampere.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andrea Cardin
Talk about spoiling the party. Drew O'Connor scored the go-ahead goal in the third period as the U.S. surprised host Finland 4-1 in a hard-fought opener in Tampere. Assistant captain Alex Tuch also stepped up with two goals for the Americans.

"We stuck to our game plan and we worked really hard," Tuch said. "We've got a lot of young guys that aren’t well-known, but they’re going to bring a lot of skill, and I think they’re going to turn some heads this tournament. I think we frustrated Finland a little bit."

Outshot 38-24, coach Jukka Jalonen's defending champions didn't deliver the performance they wanted in front of 12,056 spectators at Nokia Arena on Friday. Finland still has major kinks to work out at both ends.

"We've just got to reset right away," said Finnish assistant captain Mikko Rantanen. "Try to learn from the mistakes and try to find our legs. We were kind of a little bit sleepy and not skating the way USA was skating."
Finland made history last year, winning its first Olympic gold medal in Beijing, China and then capturing the World Championship on home ice in Tampere. The only previous nation to win Olympic and Worlds gold in the same year in men’s hockey was Sweden (2006, Torino, Italy and Riga, Latvia).

Under returning head coach David Quinn, the Americans aspire to break a World Championship tournament gold medal drought dating back to 1933. They'll need continued scoring by committee. O'Connor added two assists for a three-point debut and defenceman Dylan Samberg had two helpers.

The U.S. has bronze medals in four of the last nine Worlds (2013, 2015, 2018, 2021).

"Obviously we want to win a gold medal," said O'Connor. "Today we stepped up, but it’s a long tournament and we just want to build with every game."

Veteran Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith outduelled Finnish netminder Emil Larmi, an IIHF rookie. Larmi, 26, backstopped Vaxjo Lakers to the 2023 SHL title and was named playoff MVP with a sterling 1.30 GAA and 93.8 save percentage.

The two contenders traded first-period power play opportunities. Teemu Hartikainen, who took Finland’s first minor, also drew first blood at 17:07, snapping home Jere Sallinen’s centering pass from the goal line.

"Nice play on the power play," said Hartikainen, who led the Swiss NL with 28 goals for Geneve-Servette. "I scored a lot of goals in Switzerland this year from there. So it was a good feeling to have."

Early in the second period, Finland nearly took a two-goal lead shorthanded when Worlds rookie Ahti Oksanen set up Juho Lammiko 2-on-0, but DeSmith made a great left pad save.

The Americans dominated the second period, outshooting Finland 19-9. They thought they'd tied it up at 1:56 on Matt Coronato's point shot, but Jalonen successfully challenged the play for goalie interference.

Cutter Gauthier made it 1-1 at 13:48 with a high glove-side wrister from the left faceoff circle. The slick Philadelphia Flyers first-round pick (fifth overall, 2022) won a World Junior bronze medal in January. DeSmith robbed Lammikko again with under two minutes left in the middle frame to maintain the deadlock.

In the third period, Finland remained out of sync. Two minutes in, DeSmith took a sure goal away from Kaapo Kakko with his right pad. Tempers flared after Atte Ohtamaa levelled U.S. forward Sammy Walker with a hip check in the neutral zone and took an interference minor.

At 9:49, O'Connor finished off a slick three-way passing play, going top shelf from the slot to make it 2-1 for the Americans.

At 12:57, Tuch gave the U.S. some breathing room at 3-1. He and Rocco Grimaldi got in behind the Finnish defence and Grimaldi slickly got Larmi to commit before sliding it across to Tuch.

In the dying stages, Jalonen pulled Larmi for the extra attacker, but Tuch added an empty-netter at 19:12.

"I felt I had a lot of opportunities in the first two periods, and then I just needed Grimaldi to give me that empty-net look and obviously the empty-netter at the end too," Tuch said.

Finland is back in action on Saturday versus Germany. The U.S. gets a day off before facing Hungary.

Of the wake-up call, Hartikainen said: "It's good for us. We can't just work for the first 20 minutes and hope that we're going to win the game. It takes a full 60 minutes, and tomorrow you're going to see a way hungrier team than today."

An energetic pre-game show with laser and smoke effects hyped up the crowd. First, a video presentation showcased the new official 2023 Worlds song, "We Live the Game" (Brian Allan x San Sebastian). Finnish DJ Darude skated out in hockey gear and performed his global hit “Sandstorm” at centre ice.

After a children’s choir sang the Finnish anthem, IIHF President Luc Tardif, Finnish Ice Hockey Association chairman Harri Nummela, and Petteri Orpo, the Speaker of the Finnish Parliament, welcomed everyone to Tampere. The best is yet to come.
Finland vs United States - 2023 IIHF WM