In Monday's first quarter-final in Moncton, Victor Stjernborg scored shorthanded with just 1:05 left in the third period to lift Sweden to a 3-2 comeback win over Finland. The Swedes advance to the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship semi-finals in Halifax, while the Finns are heading home.
"It's wonderful!" Stjernborg said. "Especially when you're down 2-1 in the third period and do a quick turnaround at the end."
The Swedish captain stripped Finnish blueliner Aleksi Heimosalmi of the puck in the neutral zone, raced in on a breakaway, and beat goalie Jani Lampinen five-hole, sparking a wild celebration.
It was true heartbreak for coach Tomi Lamsa's team, which led Sweden 2-1 with under four minutes remaining.
"Almost all game, it was in our hands," said Lamsa. "In the last three and a half minutes, there was a few mistakes and I think unlucky bounces too. Two goals for the opponent, and your tournament is done. This is really hard."
This was a typically tense do-or-die game between the two Nordic rivals. The Finns dominated the first period and much of the third, while Sweden looked more dangerous in the middle frame. But the Swedes got the edge where it counts: on the scoreboard.
"We've played against the Finnish national team since U16," said Stjernborg. "And it's always tight games. We talked about how they kicked out Sweden from the World Juniors two times in a row before. So it was time for us to kick back! I think we ended it in a perfect way."
Leo Carlsson added his first two World Junior goals for Sweden, and Filip Bystedt had two assists.
"Both basically tap-ins!" Carlsson said modestly. "I was at the right place at the right time. Kinda easy goals."
Captain Oliver Kapanen and Niko Huuhtanen replied for Finland. It's Finland's first quarter-final loss since falling 4-3 in overtime to the Czechs in 2018.
In goal, Carl Lindbom unsurprisingly got his fifth straight start for Sweden after posting a 94.1 save percentage and 1.74 GAA in the group stage. Lampinen, who won both his round-robin games for a tournament-leading 96.3 save percentage and 1.00 GAA, returned between the pipes.
Stjernborg praised his goalie: "Unbelievable. I mean, hey, we couldn't win this game if it wasn't for him! So he helps us win games and he's a wonderful person. A big thank-you to him!"
Finland outshot Sweden 35-20.
Sweden is two wins away from its first gold medal since 2012. The Juniorkronorna’s only other title came in 1981. Recently, Sweden lost the 2018 final to Canada and earned the bronze medal in both 2020 and 2022.
Finland's gold medal drought now goes back to 2019. Their other titles came in 1987, 1998, 2014, and 2016. They settled for silver in 2022 with a dramatic 3-2 final loss to host Canada in overtime. The quarter-final defeat also ends a medal streak for Finland, which captured bronze in 2021.
"This was my last chance to play here," Oliver Kapanen said. "I gave everything today, left everything on the ice."
Sweden didn’t register a shot on goal until nearly 12 minutes in, as the Finns did a good job of keeping their opponents to the outside.
Sweden’s afternoon improved when Ludvig Jansson – a 19-year-old Sodertalje skater who leads Sweden's defence in scoring – sent the puck from the right faceoff circle to Carlsson in front. Carlsson tipped the puck past Lampinen’s right skate to tie it up. The 18-year-old Orebro attacker is touted as a potential top-5 pick for the 2023 NHL Draft.
Oliver Kapanen had a great chance to put Finland ahead again with just over a minute in the first when Koivunen fed him right in front, but Lindbom was equal to the challenge. The Swedes were happy to escape with a draw after 20 minutes despite being outshot 9-2.
"The first period was good for us," Oliver Kapanen said. "Then Sweden bounced back in the game. They were good in the second period and they had a couple of chances to score."
Around the seven-minute mark of the second period, Lampinen stoned Carlsson right from the slot and then Fabian Wagner fired the rebound high and wide.
A couple of minutes later, the snakebitten Fabian Lysell, who is pointless in his second World Juniors, cruised in to ring one off the goalie's right post with traffic in front. The top Boston Bruins prospect hit that same post again during a mid-period Swedish power play. Things seemed to be going Finland's way.
At 4:03 of the third period, Huuhtanen put Finland ahead with a sweet glove-side snipe from the right faceoff circle. He celebrated his second goal of these World Juniors with gusto by the side boards as his teammates mobbed him.
The teams traded ineffective power plays, neither having much success with the man advantage at this tournament, but Finland continued to drive the play on balance. The Swedish goalie had to be sharp to deny Nyman cutting hard to the net.
Lampinen was under siege as the Swedes pressed for the equalizer in the late going. He made a pad save on Bystedt's drive from the left faceoff circle, but couldn't control the rebound, which Carlsson banged in at 16:33.
Finland got a huge chance to retake the lead when Lysell was sent off for high-sticking at 18:14, but that just led to Stjernborg's winner. Lindbom then made a fabulous glove save off a Joakim Kemell one-timer to preserve the Swedish lead with 46 seconds remaining.
"Our PK was really good, our goalie played well," Lamsa said. "With one power play goal, it could have been a win for us."
This was just the third World Junior quarter-final clash between the Nordic archrivals in history. Finland beat Sweden 1-0 in 2006 in Vancouver with a 53-save shutout from Tuukka Rask. In 2021 in Edmonton, Roni Hirvonen’s goal with 25 seconds remaining gave Finland a 3-2 victory.
The last World Junior playoff meeting between these rivals was in 2022. Finland edged Sweden 1-0 in the semi-finals on Kasper Puutio’s second-period power play goal. Goalie Juha Jatkola earned a 23-save shutout. But that feels like the remote past now, even though it was less than five months ago.