POPRAD, SLOVAKIA - APRIL 22: Finland's Toni Utunen #2 celebrates with Aleksi Anttalainen #4, Jesse Koskenkovra #32 and Rasmus Kupari #34 after the 2-1 OT game-winning goal against Russia during semifinal round action at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. (Photo by Steve Kingsman/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Utunen’s winner sends Finns to final, Russia to bronze
Toni Utunen’s one-time blast from the point gave Finland a 2-1 overtime win in the semi-final against Russia. They go to the final for the third straight year.
It was Utunen's first goal of the tournament, and it couldn't have come at a better time. It was Finland's second straight win in overtime, while Russia came into the game with two straight overtime victories. Something had to give.
“We felt confident that we could get the W,” forward Santeri Virtanen stated after the game. “We've been playing together a long time, since U16, and we know each other well and have good chemistry.”
The winning goal came with 2:59 left in an overtime period that had breezed by to that point without a whistle. Finland had had a few chances to win it in the extra period, outshooting Russia 6-3, and had had sustained pressure in the zone leading up to the winner. Finally, it was Rasmus Kupari down who found Aleksi Anttalainen at the near-side point. He perfectly teed up a pass across to Utunen, and his low one-time slapper through a crowd beat Maxim Zhukov.
“I just shot the puck as hard as I could,” the 16-year-old defenceman beamed after the game. “It went in, but I was a little surprised it got through to the goal.”
After the goal, a dejected Zhukov smashed his stick on the ice. As he has been all tournament, Zhukov was solid in the Russian net, stopping 34 of 36 shots. At the other end, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 28 of 29 Russian attempts.
“They played very well defensively in the third period of their quarter-finals, so I'm not surprised by the way they played today,” Russian head coach Sergei Golubovich commented. “Everything was on the line, so they weren't going to give to many chances.”
“We talked before about scoring when we got our chances because we knew we weren't going to get too many,” said Utunen.
The Finns didn't really get any chances in the first period, in which Russia outshot them 9-3. But Finland came out with more energy in the second, getting a big boost from three power plays in the middle frame.
Jesse Ylonen opened the scoring in the 26th minute, just two seconds before a Russian penalty was set to expire. Jesperi Kotkaniemi set up the play nicely from the boards, fed Virtanen down low and his backhand pass to the far post found Ylonen, who swept it in before Zhukov could come across.
“It was a defensive battle,” Virtanen said. “They defended really well. It was tight. We had to be patient. Both teams played well, and there weren't many scoring chances.”
But the Finns did get some chances to extend their lead late in the period when they had a 5-on-3 for two full minutes. That happened when Kristian Vesalainen drew two hooking penalties on the same play trying to break through the Russian defence. There were some close calls, and at the end of the period the referees needed to consult video replay to see if the puck had crossed the goal line on one of the scrambles, but the second period ended 1-0.
And in the second minute of the third period - 58 seconds after returning to full strength - Russia tied it. Alexei Toropchenko led the rush down the right wing, then sent a nice backhand pass across to Kirill Slepets, who one-timed it in.
Late in the third it was the Russians who had the chance on the power play when Anttalainen cross-checked Slepets into the end boards. Despite some heavy pressure, however, they failed to score, which set the stage for Utunen’s overtime heroics.
“We didn't capitalize on our chances. We didn't have many, but we had a few. We just didn't execute when it mattered,” said Golubovich. “We're disappointed. We expected as a minimum to be in the gold-medal game.”
Instead, it will be Finland that plays for gold for the third straight year. And after losing to the USA in the 2015 final and beating Sweden last year, the Finns will face one of those two teams again in this year's final. The Americans and Swedes play in the later semi-final, with the winner getting Finland and the loser facing Russia for bronze.