Setting the Stage
Slovakia is a team whose main challenge in the tournament is avoiding relegation. They are the other side of the coin to the storybook rise of Denmark and the solidifying success of Switzerland.
The Slovak team is made up of a few Canadian junior players, a couple from the Swedish leagues, but it is mostly drawn from HK Orange 20. This is a team that plays in the Slovak Extraliga and was created to develop junior players to play in the WJC, when they became concerned about facing relegation.
The Finns needed a nice clean win to make up for their disappointing loss to Russia. They play the Czechs tomorrow in their final round-robin game, so they could have used an easy win to preserve their legs as well.
The Finnish top line of Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujärvi and Sebastian Aho have been bringing all the offence so far. Kasperi Kapanen was pointless heading into the game, but points are never the whole story.
This is a shot plot of Kapanen's line with their two games combined.
You can see that Kapanen is doing all the shooting. It shouldn't surprise that Mikko Rantanen is more of a setup man, but Roope Hintz has failed to add much to the line. Kapanen is shooting a lot from in tight, and the name Nazem Kadri and his struggles to score sure comes to mind here.
At the end of the Finland-Russia game, coach Jukka Jalonen switched up the lines and put Kapanen with Aleksi Saarela (3rd round pick of the New York Rangers) and Julius Nättinen (2nd round pick of the Anaheim Ducks), and they were immediately effective when Saarela picked up his second goal of the game.
Jalonen decided to give that line another try and they started the game as the second line with Rantanen and Hintz down on the third group with Antti Kalapudas, who got in his first game.
Jalonen's plan looked very good right off the drop, with Kapanen and his line getting scoring chances on their first shift and most of the ones that came after.
The Finns easily moved up through the neutral zone and were tough as nails on the cycle. Kapanen was strong on the forecheck, rattling one of the Slovaks behind their net, and his whole line looked dominant and there was an immediate feeling of inevitability when they were on the ice. They were surely going to score, weren't they?
Rantanen and his line were trying to take it up a notch, bringing the hits, but Kalapudas went too far in all the flurry of hitting, took a foolish boarding call, and the Finns got to show off their penalty kill, which looked tentative and very unlike the usual brew you get from Finns. Slovakia scored easily, and Matus Sukel had the first goal of the game.
Two minutes later, Slovakia won a faceoff and got a shot off that bounced in and out of the net. After a review it was a good goal by Radovan Bondra, and Slovakia had a 2-0 lead while an uneasy quiet descended on Hartwall Arena.
Finland's power play got their first chance 15 minutes in. The first unit got set up fast, and Kapanen had a great chance as Slovak goalie Adam Huska had to move laterally and fling out his blocker so hard, his stick went flying, but Kapanen hesitated, settling the puck off the pass, and it might have been the difference that allowed Huska to get there barely in time.
The second unit came out and Sebastian Aho got a similar chance, didn't hesitate, and it was 2-1 Slovakia.
Finland pressured Slovakia heavily in the period, despite the score, and the shots at the horn were 17-11 in favour of the hosts.
The second period opened as the first one closed, with all the offensive chances coming from Finland. Kapanen had another good chance on a two on one that the Slovaks closed up fast, but he just never got a shot off, too busy looking for a pass he couldn't make.
Midway through the second, Slovakia had only 2 shots on goal, but Finnish goalie Kaapo Kähkönen, in his first game of the tournament, took a bad penalty for hooking the puck over the glass. He redeemed himself with an excellent save after a terrible turnover by the penalty killers. The Finns decided that the best defence was an aggressive offence, and they ended up with more shots on goal than the Slovaks. Penalty killed ruthlessly.
They followed up with even more intense pressure, rushing hard and fast to the offensive zone, peppering Huska with shots. Huska, a late round pick of the New York Rangers plays for the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL and has had an excellent year there putting up a save percentage of .942.
The Finnish pressure drew a holding penalty and Saarela tied the game on the power play. The crowd was rocking, and the teams were rocking even harder. The Finns kept cranking it up, upping the speed, the physicality, and the chances kept coming.
Roope Hintz, who responded to the lineup changes with his best game of the tournament made it 3-2 with less than 2 minutes to go in the period.
Shots were 35-17 Finland after two periods, and the game had turned from a tense nail-biter to a freight train picking up speed.
The third period started with a scoring chance off the first shift for Laine, and Puljujärvi scored seconds later. 4-2 Finland.
Saarela got his second goal of the game off a shot to the net from draft-eligible defenceman Olli Juolevi who is having a standout year with the London Knights of the OHL. 5-2 Finland and the train was rolling.
Roope Hintz took a penalty, and just as it expired, the Slovaks scored just as it expired to make it 5-3. The fans were doing the wave, but there is no one has yet confirmed the correlation between the wave and opposing goals scored.
The Finns came back with multiple chances. Kapanen had a breakaway, Rantanen followed up with one of his own, and the train seemed back on track.
Laine made it 6-3 on a rip of a shot off a clean faceoff win by Aho. The Aho line, the kid line, is the line of the tournament. Laine and Puljujärvi could easily play in the NHL next year.
The Finns got another power play, and Kapanen fired one right past Huska. Finally! Finally!
He made the taking the monkey off his back gesture after, and the crowd had to feel it with him.
He had so many fantastic chances in this game, he deserved a whole set of goals. 7-3 Finland.
Slovakia pulled Huska for Stanislav Skorvanek, but Huska was the only reason the Slovaks ever had a sniff at being in this game, and Vili Saarijärvi made it 8-3 in the final minutes. The shots were 48-28 for Finland, clearly the offensive powerhouse of this tournament so far.
Kapanen has been a force in all three games for Finland, despite what the score sheet says, and while he's not quite the exciting goal scoring machines that Laine and Puljujärvi are, he has a much more complete game. He makes his linemates better.
Any line with Kapanen on it was headed to the offensive zone, and it stayed there. His positional sense is outstanding, and he gets into the slot whenever he wants and stays there.
He shoots a lot. He shoots from high-danger zones, and he shoots well, not missing much, and he never, ever stops playing at his top speed.
His frustration at going pointless deep into this game had to be massive.
There are flaws to his game. The criticism over his hesitation to shoot at all or with the kind of rapid delivery that fools goalies is valid. This is a problem that the Marlies can solve with him. Some time on the ice with guys like William Nylander and Mark Arcobello who are natural goal scorers will help him. Some time with Nikita Soshnikov, who plays a similar style of game and knows how to shoot the puck, should help too.