By Brian Pinelli
Special to USAHockey.com
It all ended suddenly and quite painfully.
Riding the momentum of an impressive 6-1 preliminary round record at last year’s IIHF World Championship, the United States saw its medal hopes vanish with a 3-2 quarterfinal loss to Finland in Helsinki. The host nation scored the game-winner with only nine seconds left in regulation.
Six players are returning from last year’s team, and they haven’t forgotten the heartbreaking loss here, something they may use as added motivation when the United States (2-1) and Finland (3-0) hit the ice this evening less than 24 hours after facing Russia.
“I still have it in my memory a little bit – I don’t like to lose, especially in big games and especially with nine seconds left,” said defenseman Justin Faulk, one of the six returning members. “At the same time, we beat them pretty good last year,” Faulk said, referring to a 5-0 preliminary round win four nights earlier. “Obviously, they beat us when it mattered more. Coming in tonight, it will be a pretty good match-up and we’re excited for it.”
Defenseman Chris Butler was also a member of the 2012 team.
“It was kind of a weird play, the puck got deflected like three times, got thrown out in front and before you knew it, it was in the back of the net,” Butler said, referring to Finland’s game-winner last year. “It was really frustrating because I think we had a group of guys that had really gelled together. I think we had much higher expectations than the way things worked out.”
Tomorrow is Helatorstai here in Finland, a national holiday that will only add to a highly energetic and patriotic atmosphere at Hartwall Arena tonight.
“These are just awesome games to play in,” Butler said. “I feel like in North America, the fans are a little bit more reserved. Here, it’s just different with the singing, chanting and cheers. It’s a really cool environment to play in. It was awesome playing Finland last year and with tomorrow being a national holiday, their fans are going to try and have a good time tonight.”
“It definitely helps you get up for the game,” said defenseman Jeff Petry, referring to the arena atmosphere and expected Finnish crowd support tonight. “Last night and tonight are big games and we need to get a win tonight, after coming off the loss last night. We need to focus on our game and not let them get into it, having a good start and hopefully getting the first goal and rolling from there.”
Faulk, who had a brilliant 2012 tournament, in which he tallied four goals and four assists in eight games, has contributed three assists so far this tournament. The 21-year-old offensive-minded defenseman admits there is significant room for improvement.
“I think I just need to move the puck a little bit better,” Faulk said. “I can make a few better plays than some of the plays that I have made. I need to round out my game a little bit better…I don’t think there is any aspect that I’ve been perfect in.”
Faulk also addressed the keys to the team improving defensively against a Finnish squad with young, but talented and skilled forwards.
“Tonight, I think we need to take a little more time away from them (Finland),” Faulk said. “We let them (Russia) have the puck a little bit too much last night and we need to establish a little more pressure. It’s obviously harder to do on the big sheet, but anytime you can take time and space away it definitely helps.”
“I think we need to manage the puck better; everything here on the bigger ice is about puck possession,” Butler added. “We can’t allow them to play that rush game that a lot of teams really thrive upon over here.”
Head coach Joe Sacco will make a change in goal, giving Ben Bishop a well-deserved night off after having started three games in four days. Nineteen-year-old John Gibson, who won gold at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship (and was tournament MVP) and also backstopped the U.S. to gold at the 2011 IIHF U18 Men’s World Championship, will make his senior national team debut.
Finland, which won the 2011 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, is currently ranked second in the world, while the U.S. is seventh.
In the history of the world championship, the U.S. is 19-0-2-27-8 (W-OTW-OTL-L-T) against Finland.