Finland Falls to USA
Another strong game from the US top line and a much-improved defence secures a victory that confirms qualification from Group B. Finland must win its next game.
Team USA booked its quarter-final spot with a tight 3-1 verdict over Finland in a game that threw up a sharp contrast with its play in much of this tournament.
After sharing 37 goals in its games prior to this one - including a win and a loss by a 6-1 margin and getting the wrong end of a 6-5 thriller against Latvia - it was hard to envisage the Americans successfully adopting a compact defensive game to edge out the Finns, but that was precisely how things played out in Minsk Arena.
And with Tim Thomas making 22 saves to guide his team to victory, the Americans confirmed that they cannot finish lower than fourth in Group B thanks to a freakish goal from Brock Nelson in the first minute and a quality third-period strike from Tyler Johnson.
When Johnson got his second in the dying seconds it completed another three-goal haul for America's impressive top line.
Team USA grabbed the lead after just 19 seconds, but goalscorer Nelson would have to admit he enjoyed a large slice of good fortune to get his fourth goal of the competition.
There seemed to be little danger when Seth Jones lifted the puck high into the boards, but as goalie Pekka Rinne went behind the net to retrieve the disc it bounced crazily off the perspex and spun back out on to the slot. Nelson got there before Juuso Hietanen to claim an unexpected marker right from the start.
"It was a crazy bounce," Nelson said. "We wanted to get pucks in deep right away. When I saw the puck come off the glass I tried to get in front and get position on my guy and was able to tap it in.
"We've seen a lot of weird bounces all over the ice in this tournament. You have to stick with it and sometimes they go your way. Tonight it did."
After much attritional play by both teams, the Americans finally extended that advantage early in the third, and if there was an element of luck about the opener there was no question about the emphatic finish that Johnson provided as he advanced from a Craig Smith pass and unleashed a wrist shot that ripped over Rinne's shoulder and into the top corner. The goalie may have been unsighted by Juuso Hietanen, but the precision with which Johnson found his spot was hugely impressive.
That precision was largely lacking from much of Finland's play, however. Even by the team's usual shot-shy standards a return of two efforts on Thomas' goal in the first session was disappointing, especially when its best spell of pressure, on a 5v3 power play, saw Jori Lehtera twice fail to make decisive contact in front of a gaping net after good work from Petri Kontiola.
USA goalie Thomas praised an improved collective effort. "We played much better on D," he said. "What did what we had to do to keep the score down and get the win. I think a better result for me goes hand in hand with that - I don't think I was any better personally than I played in the other games. If you go back and analyse those 13 goals I gave up there might be one or two that you'd consider really bad goals."
While Thomas enjoyed good protection, the Americans worked Rinne harder: Johnson's forced him to glove a wrist shot onto the piping and later Johnny Gaudreau drew a good save after gliding into a shooting position and aiming over the goalie's shoulder.
The second period also lacked drama around the nets. Finland's closest chance came midway through when Tomi Sallinen's tester was deflected wide of the post, while Peter Mueller's angled shot from the left channel gave Rinne his most anxious moment of the period.
But ultimately Finland would pay the price for failing to get shots on target in its big moments. The same problem befell Suomi on a third-period power play, with Lehtera and Leonid Komarov unable to force a save from Thomas as the team sought to up its offence in the closing stages.
Jere Salinen lamented his team's lack of fire power at the game's crucial moments. "We tried to get the puck to their zone and get scoring chances. We had our chances but could not score there. Their goalie played great when he had to today," said the Finnish forward.
By the time D-man Tuukka Mantyla finally got past Thomas in the 57th minute it was already too late to save the game. Mantyla's strike from the blue line flew into the net, but the Americans were enraged at what they saw as goalie interference as Thomas' stick went flying from his grasp in traffic around his net.
Johnson, however, rendered that argument moot in the last minute with an empty netter after Finland gave up posession far too cheaply on the blue line and invited the forward to fire home from just inside the Finnish half.