Finland stays perfect versus Latvia
by Lucas Aykroyd|21 APR 2023
Finland celebrates after opening the scoring against Latvia on a first-period goal by Rasmus Kumpulainen (#18) at the 2023 U18 Worlds.
photo: Matt Zambonin / IIHF
Powered by two Rasmus Kumpulainen goals, Finland marched to a 5-2 victory over Latvia on Friday. The Finns have two straight Group B wins in Basel, while the gritty Latvians, who only trailed 1-0 at the halfway mark, remain pointless with two losses.

Expectations are high for coach Lauri Merikivi’s Finnish squad. At the last 10 U18 Worlds dating back to 2013, the Finns have medaled six times, including gold medals in 2016 and 2018 and a bronze medal in 2022. So far, the blue-and-white team is trending in the right direction – albeit with lots of work to do.

"I'm happy to win," said Kumpulainen. "Six points. There are, of course, small things we can do better. The next game is against the USA. It's going to be the toughest one so far."

It was a balanced attack with four Finnish goal-scorers. Tuomas Uronen picked up a goal and an assist, while Emil Jarventie added two helpers.

The Finns were aiming to build off a 4-2 opening-day win over host Switzerland. Goalie Eemil Vinni, who had 16 saves in that game, got a rest. Visa Vedenpaa made his tournament debut between the pipes with a relatively easy win. Finland outshot Latvia 47-21.

Latvian goalie Aksels Ozols, who also played the first two periods in the 7-1 loss to the Americans, did his best under fire.

"We didn't have a great first or second period," said Latvia's Valters Niedrajs. "In the third period, we just woke up and scored two goals. But in the end, it's still a loss."

Finland drew first blood just 1:25 in. Kumpulainen, one of three Lahti Pelicans players on this roster, barged to the net and converted the rebound from Uronen’s bad-angle shot from the right side.

"He played very well," Uronen said of Kumpulainen. "We have a good connection."

During Finland’s first power play, Ozols stood his ground to keep it a one-goal game when Jesse Kiiskinen hammered a one-timer from the slot.

"Our goalie was playing really well, so that helped us a lot today," said Latvian assistant captain Peteris Bulans.

Continued Finnish pressure paid off at 10:53 of the middle frame. Topias Hynninen, a Jukurit Mikkeli prospect, was Johnny-on-the-spot to backhand home a loose puck on the power play for a 2-0 lead.

Getting to the net was also the key when captain Kasper Halttunen, who had the winner against Switzerland, scored his second goal of the tournament. At 17:12, he stuffed in the rebound from Konsta Helenius's centre point shot.

Just 55 seconds later, Uronen deflected in Finland's fourth goal to put the game out of reach. Second-period shots favoured Suomi 22-2.

"It was a good game for us and we got some nice goals," Uronen said.

In the third period, Latvia spoiled Vedenpaa's shutout bid when Niedrajs converted a big rebound at 4:52. It was the HS Riga forward's second goal in as many games.

Kumpulainen restored Finland's four-goal lead 20 seconds later. Markuss Streikiss rounded out the scoring with Latvia's first power play marker with 6:01 left.

This was a clash between the two nations that will co-host the 2023 IIHF World Championship (Tampere and Riga, 12 to 28 May). Finland sports a perfect 7-0 record versus Latvia at the U18 Worlds, dating back to 2007.

Saturday is a day off for both teams. On Sunday, the Finns face their stiffest test yet in the Americans, and the result will likely determine first place in Group B. Meanwhile, Latvia takes on Switzerland.

"I expect a tough battle," said Bulans. "We know what it's for. So we'll try to be ready for it."

Latvia vs Finland - 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship