VANCOUVER — Being an underdog hasn’t prevented Finland from reaching the gold-medal game at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.
The Finns scored four goals on their first eight shots and went on to defeat Switzerland 6-1 in Friday’s semifinal. They will face the United States in Saturday’s final.
Finland was mediocre in the round-robin but then upset Canada 2-1 in the quarterfinals. That game fed the Finns’ confidence heading into the game against Switzerland.
"Sometimes in a tournament like this we are the underdogs," said captain Aarne Talvitie, who scored a pair of goals less than three minutes apart in the opening period. "Especially at the beginning for the tournament everyone was like kind of skeptic about our playing. So, it feels really good to be in the finals. We proved to everybody we can play."
Forward Aleksi Heponiemi, who had a goal and three assists, said the Finns grew stronger as the tournament progressed.
"Just sticking together as a group … we have just improved our game," said the 2017 second-round draft pick of the Florida Panthers. "We just got together more and played for the team."
Finland learned some important lessons in a 4-1 loss to the U.S. when the teams met on New Year’s Eve during the round-robin. The Finns took 30 minutes of penalties in that game.
"We know they’re a good team," said Heponiemi. "We’re going to have to work really hard to get the win tomorrow.
"I don’t consider us an underdog. I think we’re a really good team this year. And I’m expecting us to beat them tomorrow."
It will be the first time the U.S. and Finland meet for world junior gold. Talvitie understands the importance of the game.
"There is a lot of history that goes with us," said the native of Espoo, Finland, who was picked in the sixth round of the 2017 NHL draft by the New Jersey Devils.
"I think we’ve always been the small country who has the fight, gives their all. It shows what type of people we are when it comes to sports and different stuff. We are the small country that shows the way."
Jesse Ylonen opened the scoring for Finland just 40 seconds into the game. Rasmus Kupari, a Los Angeles Kings draft pick, scored once and had two assists. Henri Jokiharju, on the power play, also scored.
Goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who plays for the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL, stopped 16 shots as Finland outshot the Swiss 33-17.
Philipp Kurashev scored for Switzerland on a power play.
Swiss goaltender Luca Hollenstein was pulled at 7:43 of the first period after allowing four goals on eight shots. Akira Schmid stopped 23-of-25 shots.
Swiss captain Nando Eggenberger said his team never quit despite the early deficit.
"It’s hard to give up four goals," he said. "We tried to come back.
"We had some good minutes where we played pretty good, but not enough."
A crowd of 14,014 booed the Finns the moment they stepped on the ice at Rogers Arena. The Swiss were cheered all game.
Switzerland struggled to a 1-2-1 record in the group phase, then upset Sweden 2-0 in the quarterfinal.
Finnish coach Jussi Ahokas likes the improvement his team has shown.
"We’ve played better and better every game in the tournament," he said. "It’s how it should go."
The Finns won’t be intimidated by the U.S. in the final.
"Of course, they are the favourites, but I think we have a good chance if we battle hard," said Ahokas. "We’re the guys who control the puck."
NOTES: Finland’s last world junior medal was gold in 2016… Switzerland’s only medal was a bronze in 1998… Finland outshot the Swiss 29-12 over two periods.