Finns win first game
by Andrew Podnieks|29 DEC 2023
Jere Lassila opens the scoring off a rebound.
photo: Matt Zambonin/IIHF
Finland avoided the ignominy of losing its first three World Junior Championship games, defeating Latvia 4-0 at the Scandinavium this afternoon. It was Latvia's 50th game all time in its U20 history.

The win gives Finland three points in the Group A standings and a place in the quarter-finals, coming on the heels of losses to Canada and Germany. Latvia, 0-3, now must beat Germany tomorrow and then hope the Germans lose to Canada on Sunday. If this happens, they, too, will qualify for the playoffs, but a loss tomorrow will send them to the one-game relegation round.

Finland finishes its round robin with a New Year's Eve clash with rivals Sweden on Sunday night.

"We played better than in the first two games," said goalie Noa Vali, who was making his U20 debut after having appeared at the U18 earlier this year and stopped all 23 shots for the shutout. "We played as a group and worked hard the whole game. It's going to be a crazy game against Sweden. They have a good team and many talented players. The fans will have a really good time, I think."  

For Latvia, the problem geos beyond just winning. Like Austria in the round robin last year, they have yet to score a goal through three games, not a winning strategy, to be sure.

"We started well in our defensive zone, but we didn't get a lot of shots," said forward Sandis Vilmanis. "And our discipline is still a problem. They scored three goals with the power play, and that's the main reason we lost."

The way Latvia was dominated by the Finns in the opening period was a good primer as to why they had yet to score. Suomi won the puck battles and controlled play inside the Latvia blueline at will, and although Latvia contained Finland for a while--the game was scoreless for more than 14 minutes--it seemed just a matter of time before Finland would score.

That feeling became reality when Toms Mots took a double minor for high sticking. Midway through the extended power play goalie Deivs Rolovs, making his second start of the tournament, couldn’t control a Kasper Halttunen point shot and captain Jere Lassila was there to swat the rebound into the empty net at 14:15.

Just 58 seconds later the Finns made it 2-0 off the rush. Lenni Hameenaho made a nice cross-ice pass through traffic onto the tape of Jesse Pulkkinen, and he roofed a shot short side to double their lead.

Rolovs faced 20 shots in the period while at the other end Vali had to deal with only three, all pretty harmless.

The second was peppered with minor penalties, seven in all, but although Latvia played better defence it still couldn’t generate much in the way of offence. Rolovs was again terrific, making a superb right-pad save off Lassila, but the Finns upped the count to 3-0 at 8:59 on a power play. Halttunen snapped a low shot that beat Deivs five-hole. A little while later Latvia had its best chance when Dans Locmelis hit the post during a five-on-four advantage.

Finland continued its scoring ways early in the third on another power play when Oiva Keskinen snapped a shot high to the short side past the head of Rolovs, who was down covering the lower part of the net. Jani Nyman thought he made it an even five at 10:29 on a nice solo effort, popping in his own rebound after Rolovs made the initial save. But Artis Abols used a coach's challenge based on goalie interfrence, and the referees agreed with him--no goal.

The game ended with Latvia on a five-on-three for the full two minutes, but prss as they may they coudn't dent the twine for that first goal. And now, it's do-or-die tomorrow against Germany.
Latvia vs Finland - 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship