"It was obviously nice to win 6-2, and it was a team effort all across the board," said the U.S.'s Chaz Lucius. "So it was really great to get the win."
Coach Tomi Lamsa's Finns, who came second with seven points to the U.S.'s nine, will battle either Canada or Sweden in the quarter-finals, depending on the outcome of the last Group A game in Halifax.
"I think today our defence wasn't strong enough," said Lamsa. "Six goals against. We need to help our goalie more. And also, our power play only [generated] one goal. If you want to win games like that, you need to score more."
Both these nations are questing for their sixth World Junior gold medal of all time on 5 January in the Nova Scotia capital.
Jimmy Snuggerud strutted his stuff with a goal and three assists for the Americans, while Logan Cooley had a goal and two assists and captain Luke Hughes added a goal and an assist. Lucius, Rutger McGroarty, and Lane Hutson each scored once.
"We're gonna have a strong competition with Germany," said Snuggerud, who leads the U.S. with seven points. "We can't take them lightly. We kind of took Slovakia little lighter than we should. Coming into this game, we have to take them on and know that they're gonna give us their best because they want to win too."
Lenni Hameenaho replied with a goal and an assist for Finland, and Joakim Kemell added a single. Defenceman Aleksi Heimosalmi chipped in two helpers.
On balance, the Finns just weren't as dialed in as their Stars and Stripes opponents from the drop of the puck. They'll need to be better to survive their first do-or-die game.
"I think we started really badly," said assistant captain Ville Koivunen. "The opponents were really good and played very well with the puck. We didn't win any battles there, and we couldn't pass one puck to the stick."
"They came on us hard and we just need to be prepared for that," said Finland's Brad Lambert. "It was a step up from the first three games we played. We kind of got a learning lesson against Switzerland and now we've got this. After Switzerland, we bounced back well with two wins, and now all we've got to do is bounce back and go 3-0 from here. Nothing's lost here yet, but we've got to be better."
In net, the U.S.'s Trey Augustine, a prodigious 17-year-old in his first World Juniors, recorded his third straight win with 29 saves. Aku Koskenvuo got his second tournament start for Finland after conceding three goals on 27 shots in the opening 3-2 overtime loss to Switzerland. The Vancouver Canucks prospect made 24 stops.
The Americans kept their pressure up and scored on a clever set play at 15:22. After the penalty expired, Ryan Ufko fired a shot off the end boards that rebounded next to the goalie's right post, where Lucius banged it in.
"It was just kind of luck of the draw," Lucius said modestly. "Hit off the boards, and I was right there to put it in the net. Right place, right time."
Kemell struck right back with a power play goal at 16:27, blasting a one-timer from the top of the left faceoff circle. The top Nashville Predators prospect immediately cupped his hand to his right ear as the Moncton crowd – predictably rooting for the Finns versus Canada’s cross-border rival – roared with glee. Chants of “Let’s go Finland!” resounded as the period wound down.
"Really good shot, kept us in it for a while," Lambert said. "But obviously, [the game] turned around again."
The Americans regained their lead at 4:57 of the second period on the power play. Hughes danced through the neutral zone and into the Finnish end, sending a short back pass to McGroarty. He caught Koskenvuo offguard with a shot that squeezed through the goalie's pads.
Augustine got the second assist on the goal, but still trails Czechia's Tomas Suchanek, who has a tournament-record three assists, among goalie playmakers.
Snuggerud made it 3-1 U.S. unassisted at 9:02. On the forecheck, the University of Minnesota ace created a turnover in front of Koskenvuo and pivoted to fling a backhand past the goalie for his team-leading fourth goal.
Lucius praised Snuggerud: "He's obviously a great player. He shoots the puck really well, passes really well. And he's a great teammate out there. So I'm really happy for him."
Things continued to fall America's way. Hughes overpowered the Finnish goalie with a slapper from the right side to give the Americans a three-goal lead at 14:48.
Finland cut the deficit to 4-2 just 27 seconds later. Hameenaho, standing at the edge of the crease, capitalized on a fortunate bounce off a skate to whack the puck into the open side.
Even though shots favoured Finland 14-8 in the middle frame, they had a steep hill to climb. A litlte too steep.
In the third period, Cooley and Snuggerud hooked up on a dynamic rush, and Cooley broke to the net to put Snuggerud's rebound past Koskenvuo at 3:55. The U.S. had some breathing room at 5-2.
Despite getting the next two man advantages, the Finns looked disjointed and couldn't get anything going.
The Americans added a little confetti and fireworks with Lane Hutson's 6-2 marker at 16:15. On the rush, Cooley found a streaking Snuggerud, and his behind-the-back pass set up the trailing Hutson, who made no mistake.
"I found a pocket of space and Cools and Jim were making all types of plays out there," Hutson said. "I was on the receiving end of a pretty nice play by Jim. Hit me and I saw five-hole, so I put it there."
"We knew we had an opportunity for the number one seed," McGroarty summed up. "So obviously once that's on the line, it's hard not to get up for these games. Especially playing Finland, too. They're a good team. In the locker room you can tell the boys are ready to go, and it's only up from here. I think we're only going to keep getting better and better."
This game was atypically lopsided. Finland and the U.S. have forged one of the IIHF World Junior Championship’s most evenly matched rivalries over the decades. To generalize, the Finns dominated in the 1980s, things evened out in the 1990s, and the U.S. took the upper hand in the 2000s. Lately it's been close to a dead heat.
The Finns beat the U.S. 3-2 in the 2019 gold medal game in Vancouver, the only time these rivals have played for gold. The U.S. eliminated Finland from gold medal contention with a 4-3 semi-final win at the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton before beating Canada 2-0 for the title.
The U.S.’s record against Finland now sits at 18 wins, one tie, and 18 losses. Will there be a playoff rematch to break the deadlock? Stay tuned.