SOCHI, April 28 (R-Sport) – Kasperi Kapanen scored the game winner and Juuse Saros made 24 saves as Finland claimed the bronze medal Sunday at the under-18 hockey world championships, beating Russia 2-1.
As Finland celebrated at center ice, the Russians slumped despondently against the boards in front of their bench, a bleak moment for a program that had been pining for a medal at the Sochi 2014 test event.
Playing in front of a somewhat subdued home crowd at the Bolshoi Ice Dome, Russia failed to earn a medal at the under-18 championships for the second straight year, having placed fifth at last year’s tournament in the Czech Republic.
Finland, meanwhile, comes away with its first podium finish since 2010, when they also won bronze.
“It was quite a big challenge to go into the bronze medal game after the semifinal game against Canada on Saturday,” said Mika Marttila, the Finnish coach, referring to Friday’s 3-1 loss. “We were able to defend our goal and Saros did a huge job.”
The first goal of the game came 34 seconds into the first period when Artturi Lehkonen took a long pass from Julius Honka down the right wing and fired a rope over Russian goaltender Igor Shestyorkin’s right shoulder.
It was the third goal and ninth tournament point for Lehkonen, who served as Finland’s de facto go-to scorer with Aleksander Barkov out with an injured shoulder.
Finland went ahead 2-0 at 9:43 of the first period off a faceoff won by Otto Rauhala. Shestyorkin blocked a quick point shot from Kapanen, but the Finn was there to put home the rebound for his team-leading fifth goal.
“It’s a big goal, a game-winning goal,” Kapanen said. “It’s a good thing I got it today. I actually felt before the game I could score a goal, and it happened.”
The deficit represented the first time Russia had allowed two first-period goals since their first game of the tournament, a 4-3 win over the United States. Russia beat the Finns 3-1 in the second game of the preliminary round.
Russia finally solved Saros, the Finnish goalie, on the power play at 30:50 of the second period. With less than a minute remaining on Kapanen’s boarding penalty, Vladimir Tkachyov scored on a brilliant move, slipping the puck through Alex Lintuniemi’s legs, before laying a hard deke to Saros’s left and poking it through his legs. It was his fifth goal of the tournament.
Finland otherwise stalled Russia’s high-octane attack, which led the tournament with 33 goals heading into Sunday. NHL prospects Valeri Nichushkin and Pavel Buchnevich were both held off the score sheet. On the other end, Finland outshot Russia 22-15 through the first two periods.
“The way we played in the game wasn’t good enough,” said Russia’s coach Igor Kravchuk. “We were not able to score when we wanted.”
While the offense never found any inconsistency, it was Shestyorkin who shouldered much of the blame for the loss after facing 27 shots.
“I played timidly, insecurely in the beginning, and the team crumbled,” the 17-year-old said.
Saros, NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked European goalie before the June entry draft, played up to his billing, making ten saves in the third period, including a golden opportunity for Russia five minutes in when Nikita Setdikov had a wide-open look in front of the net.
Buchnevich nearly tied the game at 12:01 of the third period on a wraparound that he jammed past Saros, but with a horde of bodies in front of the net the referees waved off the goal.
Later, with just over three minutes left, Saros kicked away a Ruzal Galeyev breakaway shot to preserve the win.
The netminder finished with a 1.86 goals against average in seven games while making a tournament-high 226 saves.
“Saros is a top-level athlete, mentally and physically,” Martilla said. “For the last two years he has been the best goalie in his age group in Finland. He should be the best goalie in the tournament. His future is very, very good.”
The Finns had entered the tournament in the final year of a three-year development period, which, according to Marttila, was supposed to end with an under-18 gold medal.
Canada faces the United States Sunday night in the gold medal game.