The elimination rounds of the 2018 World Junior Championships began with a clash between the Group B runners-up Czech Republic and Group A third-placed Finland. The Finns are coming off the heels of a close 5-4 defeat to the United States, while the Czechs overcame a feisty Switzerland side 6-3 on the final day of Round Robin play.
A tenuous start by both sides saw the Finns earn some decent zone time, but the Nuoret Leijonat managed just a single shot on net by Kristian Vesalainen which was easily swallowed up. An Urho Vaakanainen slashing call then sent a formidable Czech power play to work, and it didn’t take long for 2018 draft0-eligible prospect Filip Zadina to cash in. Martin Necas set up his linemate and Zadina snapped the shot short side on Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen to open the scoring in the first period.
Although Finland continued to enjoy heavy zone time, both sides continued to trade chances through the remainder of the period, which the Czechs creating their chances off the rush and capitalizing on poor Finnish passing. The trio of Joni Ikonen, Eetu Tuulola, and Jere Innala managed some solid chances despite being matched up against the formidable Czech trio of Zadina, Necas, and Albert Michnac for parts of the opening frame.
Ikonen would cap off a strong period by drawing a late penalty in a loose puck battle. Despite not cashing in on the man advantage, Finland took the momentum back to even strength and ended the period with a dominant 15-4 shot advantage.
Early in the second, another Finnish power play finally saw the stronger side break down the Czech netminder. A Kristian Vesalainen shot bounced loose in the crease and Aapeli Rasanen pounced on the puck, backhanding it past Josef Korenar to tie the game.
Koerenar would be called into action not long after when Otta Koivula broke in alone. The Czech goalie stretched across and denied the Finns a second goal using the full length of his pads in a highlight reel save.
Then the Finnish attack struck again, this time with Olli Juolevi doing the damage. The Finnish defenceman, who had collected a secondary assist on the opening Finnish goal, took a Vesalainen pass and wired a shot from the blueline over Korenar’s shoulder to put his side up for the first time in the game.
Great shot, great screen pic.twitter.com/XNa7ZjxlR1— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 2, 2018
As they’ve done all tournament, the resilient Czech side would not go away without a fight. Kristian Reichel took a great lead pass from Radovan Pavlik and sped behind the Finnish defence. Despite being hooked on the play, Reichel tied the game with a perfect backhand into the top part of the net.
Really nice goal by Kristian Reichel of Czech Republic to tie it up pic.twitter.com/vWJkEnHoWq— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 2, 2018
Another Finnish power play late in the period saw Eeli Tolvanen nearly put the Finns back on top. The winger took in a pass and wired a laser off the crossbar. The Czechs were unfazed, killing off the remainder of the infraction without much issue, as the Finns seemed rather passive in the offensive zone, opting to pass rather than pull the trigger.
The third period started much like the first, with neither side gaining a foothold. Finland set up camp in the offensive zone for much of the opening minutes, but the Czechs tied up passing lanes and blocked the majority of the dangerous chances. The top Finnish line eventually broke through after 6:30 in the final frame, Vesalainen cashing in on a Tolvanen rebound to make it a 3-2 game.
Finland, despite having a massive shot advantage and having owned the puck for most of the final period, gave the Czechs a golden chance to tie the game for the third time. Zadina and Henri Jokiharju took coincidental minors with 10 minutes to go, opening the ice up for 4 on 4 play for two minutes. A few rushes from both sides resulted in zero goals, with the Czechs turning up the pressure on the counterattacks looking for another late equalizer.
The push back from the Czech was stagnated almost entirely by Finland, with breakouts failing to clear the blue line and passes missing sticks by miles. Korenar continued to keep his team in with a shout, facing 47 shots before heading to the bench for an extra attacker with 3:10 remaining in the period.
Korenar’s efforts would be rewarded, as miracles do happen. Seemingly out of nothing, a Jakub Galvas shot from the point was tipped home by Zadina, tying the game with 2:26 left on the clock.
Filip Zadina with the tip in front for his second goal of the game. Ties it 3-3 late pic.twitter.com/Z6ThgsGd3p— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) January 2, 2018
To Finland’s credit, they pushed back immediately, testing Korenar with several high danger chances. But the San Jose Sharks prospect in the Czech net continued to stand on his head (finishing with 48 saves on 51 regulation time shots), and his efforts would send the game to a 10 minute 4 on 4 overtime period.
A tense overtime period with both countries trading chances solved nothing, leading to a five man shootout. Filip Chytil went down late in the overtime along the boards, but didn’t leave for the locker room.
Ultimately, the game came down to the shoot-out, and the Czech Republic capped off the upset. Reichel and Necas put two past Luukkonen to lift the Czechs to the semifinals, while Vesalainen was the only Finn capable of beating a resolute Korenar.
After the game, Eyes on the Prize was able to speak with Canadiens prospect Joni Ikonen to get his thoughts on tournament:
It was a tough game on the schedule, and made more difficult by the goalie putting in a performance like that, was there anything you changed to try and beat him?
Ikonen: “No, I don’t know, we had our chances, and we should have just killed the game and score goals, but we weren’t able to score goals today like we should have. It sucks”
Is there any experiences you can take back to Liiga with you, things that you can use to improve your game?
“I don’t know right now, it just feels empty, and I hope over time it can starts to feel better. It’s a tough game, and it’s win or lose and we didn’t score goals. We needed to score more goals, that’s the lesson.”
You were matched up against their top guys a lot, did you change anything with that match up?
“I don’t know, I mean at this level everyone out there is good at playing hockey, so I didn’t focus on who I was playing against, just how I could help my team.”