Boxing Day 2019 was the day of regional battles. We started the day by watching the Czech Republic fend off their arch nemesis, Russia, in a game that had almost as many penalties as shots on goal. Following that matchup, a fight for North American prominence in Group B awaited us, as well as this one: the battle of Fennoscandia between Sweden and Finland. The Three Crowns against The Finnish Lions. Ruotsi vastaan Suomi. Sverige mot Finland. A highly important game, not only for the supporters but quite possibly also an early decider for the top seed in Group A.
Hugo Alnefelt, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect with eight games for HV71 in the SHL this season, started in the Swedish net while Justus Annunen, with a. 947 save percentage for Kärpät in Liiga, got the nod for the reigning champions.
Those two had to demonstrate their skill set instantaneously since a Swedish double chance off a centre-ice breakaway was followed by a two-man advantage for the Finns. Alnefelt and Sweden survived that time. They also survived a minor penalty, albeit just barely, as heavy pressure around the net made the Swedes forget about their defensive assignments.
Anttoni Honka got a first-class opportunity to shoot from his position out left, but tricked just about everyone with a pass into the crease where the puck eventually went in off Patrik Puistola’s skate.
The second period started and immediately we received something which forever will be known as one of the top moments of this tournament. Coming off a power play, Canucks second-rounder Nils Höglander got some space, and those of you who follow the SHL know what that means. In behind the goal, Höglander bent down to put the puck up on his stick, turned to go behind the net, and, with the puck glued to his blade in a lacrosse-style manner, swept in the game-tying goal above Annunen’s shoulder pad. Some goals cannot properly be explained with words. They need to be watched. This is one of those goals.
Finland regained the lead late in the period after a tangled-up situation where six players, three from each team, ended up in the crease in front of Alnefelt. Short (172 cm/5’8”) forward Kristian Tanus was the last player to touch it before the puck ended up in the Swedish net.
Even though Sweden had outshot Finland 31 to 16, the Finns’ had the lead entering the third period. Annunen made sure to show any potential doubters that he can dominate games outside of the Finnish league as well.
During the third period, the Swedish shooting domination continued with the Finnish team holding back and waiting for mistakes and possible breakaways. Annunen continued just as in the first two periods and started to look like the Ghost of Christmas Present for the Swedish team. I began to wonder if he could in fact only be subdued by lacrosse-style goals.
Then with a little more than five minutes left to play, Frölunda winger and Los Angeles Kings prospect Samuel Fagemo had his seventh shot of the night from a prime position in the slot. Just like the other six, this one was stopped by Annunen as it hit him in the chest. The Finnish netminder then tried to sweep away the puck to stop any rebounds. When he missed, Fagemo immediately got a chance for revenge. As the old saying goes, “eighth time’s the charm.” Sweden had tied the game up. Like that, Sweden was able to take the game to overtime and possibly extend their round-robin winning streak to 49 games.
When Finnish captain Lassi Thomson got sent to the box for a minor penalty during overtime, Sweden got a golden opportunity to extend their streak. With only four seconds left and while everyone else was waiting for an uncertain shootout, 2020 top prospect Alexander Holtz marched into the offensive zone and slapped a shot that went right above Annunen's glove.
Sweden turned the contest around, winning 3-2 and getting the possibly crucial extra point.
We next await more modest opposition for both countries, as Finland will take on Slovakia, and Sweden will try to get their long awaited revenge for last year’s quarter-final loss when they face Switzerland on Saturday.