Finland FIN
6 JAN 2024
Czechia CZE
Preliminary Round
12:00Arena Zug
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Game details
MANTHA Elizabeth
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Finns rally to top Czechs in opener
By Lucas Aykroyd | 06 JAN 2024
Emma Ekoluoma (#10, centre) starred with three goals in Finland's 3-2 come-from-behind win over Czechia to open the 2024 U18 Women's Worlds in Zug, Switzerland.
In an exciting start to the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship, Emma Ekoluoma scored a hat trick as Finland rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat Czechia 3-2.

"She is a very, very important player," Finnish coach Mira Kuisma said of the 17-year-old Ekoluoma, a forward who plays for Karpat Oulu. "She has scored most of our goals this season. I think she's got a good thing going right now."

On the shorthanded winner with 1:54 left, Abigail Byskata set up Ekoluoma on a 2-on-1 break, and she got in tight and deked to the backhand before sliding it in.

Czech captain Adela Sapovalivova, playing her third U18 Women's Worlds, scored twice.

"I think we had a really good start but then we got a little scared," said Tereza Plosova, Sapovalivova's linemate for the third straight tournament. "We stopped playing our game. We stopped skating and were just watching."

Finnish goalie Kerttu Kuja-Halkola, who appeared in every Finnish game at the 2023 tournament in Ostersund, Sweden, made 28 saves for the win in Zug, Switzerland. Czech goalie Aneta Senkova had 17 saves in her first U18 Women's Worlds game.

Both nations are hungry to return to the medal podium. The Finns have three bronze medals all-time (2011, 2019, 2022), while the Czechs have two bronzes (2008, 2014).

There have been questions about how much offence Finland will generate without graduating aces like 2022 Olympian Sanni Vanhanen and 2023 assistant captain Pauliina Salonen. To see Ekoluoma tally thrice relieves some concerns.

Czech coach Dusan Andrasovsky leaned heavily on his top line. Sapovalivova alone played a team-high 24:04.

"She's our top player, experienced and in good condition," Andrasovsky said. "I think she's played for 30 minutes for our team [in the past]. We don't have better players than her."

Sapovalivova's line dominated the first period. Plosova cut in solo from the right faceoff circle and was checked at the last second by defender Nelly Andersson. Moments later, Sapovalivova, down low, trickled the puck right through the crease.

Sapovalivova scored the tournament’s first goal at 6:52 on the power play. Running the show from the half-wall, the MoDo Hockey star stepped into the right faceoff circle and beat Kuja-Halkola with a low wrister. The Finnish goalie's quick glove foiled Plosova dashing in off right wing moments later.

Just 35 seconds into the second period, Sapovalivova jumped on a loose puck in front of the net and zapped it high glove side for a 2-0 lead.

"We did a good breakout," Sapovalivova said. "One of our players got the puck to the D and they shot. I found the puck and just shot and it went in. I was so happy."

Shortly past the midway mark, Senkova was alert to stop Tinja Tapani, who fought off a check from behind to burst in for a good chance. But Finland cut the deficit to 2-1 at 16:28 with a power play goal by Ekoluoma, who roofed it from the bottom of the right faceoff circle. The Finnish assistant captain led her team with two goals and two assists in December's Four Nations tournament in Chomutov, Czechia.

"I've been feeling good about my game," said Ekoluoma. "Maybe there are some details that can be improved, but overall it was a good feeling today."

Early in the third period, Sapovalivova was penalized for bowling over Kuja-Halkola. Ekoluoma capitalized at 4:58 with just five seconds left in the power play. Julia Kuusisto, with her second assist of the game, set up the 2-2 equalizer with a beautiful feed from behind the net, and Ekoluoma fired it over Senkova's right shoulder.

After the late go-ahead goal, Czechia kept pressing on the 5-on-4 power play but just couldn't find the range as the Finns checked tenaciously. The Czechs will get another big test when they face defending champion Canada on Sunday.

"We expect a really hard and tough game," Plosova said. "They will be so physical, so we have to be ready for that. Eat well, sleep well, and let's go!"

Saturday's opener was a rematch of the 2023 quarter-final. In that 3-2 Finnish victory, Pauliina Salonen scored two power play goals, including the late third-period winner, and Kuja-Halkola made 27 saves.

At the senior level, the Finns and Czechs enjoy an ever-growing rivalry. They have met in four consecutive IIHF Women’s World Championship quarter-finals. The Finns won 3-1 in 2019 and 1-0 in 2021 en route to silver and bronze respectively. The Czech team took their revenge, winning 2-1 in overtime in 2022 and 2-1 in 2023 en route to back-to-back bronzes. Sapovalivova suited up for both those teams and Plosova made the 2023 squad.

Prior to this game, Czechia had lost four straight U18 Women's Worlds tilts against Finland. The last Czech win was 2-1 for fifth place in 2018. Finland’s all-time record against the Czechs falls to nine wins and seven losses.

Finland vs Czechia - 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship