Finns shut out Slovaks to move on
by Lucas Aykroyd|11 JAN 2024
Finland's Julia Kuusisto (#29) high-fives her teammates after scoring the opening goal in a 2-0 quarter-final win over Slovakia at the 2024 U18 Women's Worlds.
Julia Kuusisto broke a scoreless tie in the second period as Finland beat Slovakia 2-0 to advance to the semi-finals of the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship.

Emma Ekoluoma added her team-leading seventh goal and an assist and goalie Kerttu Kuja-Halkola posted a 19-save shutout.

"It's a good result," said Finnish coach Mira Kuisma. "I don't care about the numbers. The victory is the most important thing."

The last time Finland lost a quarter-final was 2018. The Finns own bronze medals from 2011, 2019, and 2022. They settled for fourth place in 2023.

Shots on goal favoured Finland 24-19. Slovak goalie Livia Debnarova was valiant in a losing cause.

"We were glad to see our girls improve in every game," said Slovak coach Gabriela Sabolova. "The only thing I think we were missing is to be more hungry to score and not wait for the 'right moment.' Just go for it, play more more simple."

For Sabolova's team, it’s a tough result to accept after they made headlines with Nela Lopusanova’s highlight-reel MVP performance – nine goals and 12 points – in the 2023 tournament in Ostersund, Sweden.

Lopusanova was instrumental when Slovakia edged Switzerland 2-1 on Wednesday, scoring the first goal and setting up defender Hana Krakorova’s overtime winner. However, the 15-year-old forward’s body language at times betrayed frustration when offensive attempts fizzled. Blanked in the quarter-final, Lopusanova finishes with two goals and three points in four games.

Krakorova and forward Michaela Fenikova did not play against Finland, as they felt unwell and were resting to recover for the next game. This obliged the Slovaks to play with 11 forwards and six defenders. Posing another obstacle, Slovakia's power play, which has struggled in Zug, dried up here, going 0-for-4.

"We didn't have enough players for a full four lines," said forward Ema Tothova. "So we had to change our centres every shift, which was kind of tough."

In a cautiously played opening period, Finland outshot Slovakia 10-7. Tinja Tapani, the cousin of Finnish national team star and PWHL Minnesota forward Susanna Tapani, rang one off the iron with three minutes left in the frame.

Tight checking continued in the second period as the teams traded power plays. After Finland's Heidi Holmberg took an interference minor for knocking over Lopusanova, Slovak assistant captain Michaela Paulinyova forced Kuja-Halkola to make a tough left pad stop on her redirect of a Lopusanova feed.

At 11:29, Kuusisto drew first blood. An onrushing Ekoluoma found her on the left side with a cross-ice pass, and the Ilves Tampere forward cut in to deposit a backhander past Debanarova. Kuusisto, who has three assists, punched the air in jubilation after scoring her first goal of the tournament.

"It was a great pass from Emma and wonderful to score on it," Kuusisto said. "I got the monkey off my back."

The tempo picked up. When Kuusisto came calling again, Debnarova came way out of her net to challenge, allowing no rebound. With Tapani penalized for tripping late in the period, Lopusanova couldn't hit the target.

After the Slovaks squandered two more 5-on-4 advantages early in the third period, Debnarova came up big when Tapani tested her from the high slot on the rush. But she couldn't stop Ekoluoma's quick release from the left faceoff circle at 11:29.

"We played as a team, we gave our hearts, we gave everything to the game," said Paulinyova. "It just didn't turn out the way we wanted to."

An attempt by Lopusanova to replicate her famous "Michigan" goal from last year's 6-1 quarter-final loss to Sweden saw the puck slip off her blade. Kuja-Halkola's glove denied Tothova from the slot with under two minutes left. Debnarova was pulled for the extra attacker, but Slovakia couldn't get on the board even though the Finns iced the puck repeatedly.

Kuisma, a former national team goalie, praised Kuja-Halkola's performance under pressure: "She was very self-confident and calm. Like a wall."

Looking ahead to the semi-finals, Kuusisto simply said: "We need to be ready from the start of the game."

Slovakia’s previous peak finish is sixth place (2022, 2023).

In the Four Nations tournament in Chomutov, Czechia in December, Finland earned a 4-3 win over Slovakia on Ekoluoma’s goal 17 seconds into overtime, despite Debnarova's 39-save performance. The Slovaks have demonstrated that they can play with Finland, and this quarter-final defeat offers a valuable learning experience.

This was the first U18 Women’s Worlds meeting ever between Finland and Slovakia. The Slovaks have only competed at the elite level since 2020. This is their fourth consecutive appearance.
Finland vs Slovakia - 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship