U.S. firepower dooms Finns
by Lucas Aykroyd|23 APR 2023
Will Smith (#2) whoops it up after scoring the U.S.'s fifth goal in an 8-4 Group B victory over Finland at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Switzerland.
photo: Matt Zambonin / IIHF

Advantage America. The U.S. gave rival Finland an 8-4 thumping at Basel’s St. Jakob Arena on Sunday to retain first place in Group B. Coach Dan Muse’s squad remains perfect with three straight wins.

Will Smith dazzled with a goal and four assists. Linemate Gabe Perreault added a goal and three helpers to increase his single-season USA Hockey National Team Development Program points record (125). This hot duo is vying for the overall scoring lead (11 points apiece).

About beating Finland, Smith said: "It gives us a lot of confidence. We've seen them a bunch over the last two years. We kind of have a little rivalry versus them. We know they're a contender. So we made sure we want to make a statement here."

High-flying winger Cole Eiserman, 16, scored his tournament-leading sixth goal for the Americans. By way of comparison, Auston Matthews totalled five goals in seven games at the same age at the 2014 U18 Worlds.

It was Finland's first loss in Basel. The Americans matched the Finns’ grit all over the ice but had a visible edge skills-wise. Final shots favoured the U.S. 33-31.

"We don't back down from anyone," Smith said. "We've played against 20-year-olds [in the USHL] all year. We know we're strong. We know we've been in the weight room. So I think we're not scared of anyone."

"In the second and third periods, we started to lose pucks in the neutral zone," said Finnish coach Lauri Merikivi. "They have so many offensive skills, so we can't do that."

On Tuesday, the U.S. completes its preliminary-round slate versus host Switzerland, while the Finns take on Norway.

The Americans got the early jump at 1:06. Ryan Fine created a turnover with a hit on the side boards and threw the puck to speedster Oliver Moore, who danced in on goal and scored stick side on Finland's Eemil Vinni with a flourish. It was the University of Minnesota commit’s third goal of these U18 Worlds.

"He made a really good play on the wall to me," Moore said. "I saw an opening and kind of jumped in. I like that move and it ended up working. It felt good to get the team on the board."

At 3:45, pinching defenceman Aram Minnetian made it 2-0, taking a cross-ice feed from Will Smith and whipping a wrist shot past Vinni from the hash marks.

Finland got on the board with the man advantage at 13:58. Star Finnish defender Aron Kiviharju, who is averaging close to 25 minutes a game at this tournament, found Konsta Helenius with a clever pass back to the centre point and his long shot eluded U.S. starter Trey Augustine. That was the first power play goal the U.S. has conceded at these U18 Worlds.

Arttu Alasiurua made it 2-2 with 0:37 left in the opening stanza. Helenius won a draw in the U.S. end, captain Kasper Halttunen fired it on net, and Alasiurua, a Karpat Oulu prospect, stormed to the net to bang in the rebound.

The U.S. went up 3-2 at 3:58 of the second period on the power play. Defenceman Cole Hutson shimmied into the left faceoff circle and sent a sweet saucer pass to Eiserman, whose one-timer was unstoppable.

"USA is a great team," said Halttunen. "They are so talented, skilled players. If we give them anything, they will score. That was the game today."

Fine thought he'd given the U.S. a two-goal lead at 7:35 when he busted to the net and pushed in a puck that had bounced off the post and lay underneath the sprawling Vinni's right pad. However, the goal was nullified after an extensive video review.

Less than a minute later, James Hagens left no doubt on his 4-2 marker. With the U.S. on the forecheck, Will Vote found Hagens cruising into the slot. He pulled the puck through his feet before sliding a backhander home.

Halttunen cut the deficit to 4-3 at 13:19. He accepted Emil Kuusla's feed on the rush in the right faceoff circle and zinged his fourth goal of the tournament past Augustine.

Halttunen exchanged some words with the U.S. netminder on the play: "I told him that I will score top left and then I did it."

Smith put on an individual skills clinic to make it 5-3 U.S. with 1:06 left in the period. He stickhandled through a forest of Finnish defenders and flicked the puck past Vinni.

"I was thinking about chipping it in," Smith said. "My legs were gassed. And then I kind of looked up and I said, 'Why not?'"

Three minutes into the third, Smith and Perreault's nifty passing gave Carey Terrance a wide-open net for his first U18 goal. Although Jesse Kiiskinen struck back 10 seconds later to make it 6-4, the Finns were too deep in the hole to climb out. Perreault and Ryan Leonard added insurance markers with under five minutes to play.

Halttunen tipped his hat to the top U.S. line: "I think they are so unexpected. They can do things that no one else can. And obviously the chemistry between those three guys is great."

Both these contenders aspire to end their gold medal droughts in 2023. The U.S. last won the U18 Worlds in 2017, while Finland’s last title was in 2018. Last year, the U.S. settled for silver with a 6-4 final loss to Sweden, and the Finns took bronze with a 4-1 win over Czechia. Will there be a rematch? Stay tuned.
United States vs Finland - 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship