Finns rally late to beat Czechs, earn date with US 

Finland is headed to the Olympic semifinals after a lost helmet led to a lucky tip 53½ minutes into a scoreless game.

Jaromir Jagr is headed home after a heartbreaking finish to what might be his final hockey game in North America.

Niklas Hagman tipped home a power-play goal with 6:26 to play, and the Finns beat the Czech Republic 2-0 Wednesday night to advance to a meeting with the top-seeded U.S. team.

Miikka Kiprusoff made 31 saves to win his duel with Tomas Vokoun, who made 29. Both goalies were flawless until Hagman redirected Janne Niskala's slap shot through a sliver of space under Vokoun's legs — just the type of grinding play Jagr made so frequently during his NHL career.

"It was an unfortunate break, but that's hockey," Vokoun said. "Not many pretty goals are scored here any more. It's always going to be something like that."

Hagman had room to work because Czech defenseman Pavel Kubina was behind the net retrieving his helmet, which had been knocked off. In the international game, a player who loses his helmet must track it down or get off the ice immediately.

"It was good for us he lost his helmet, but it's a stupid rule," Hagman said. "I know they want to keep it safe, (but) if you lose a helmet, you should let the guy play. I don't know what they're thinking, but that's the rules and you have to play with them."

Valtteri Filppula scored an empty-net goal with 1:35 to play for the fourth-seeded Finns, the defending silver medalists, who will face the Americans on Friday for a spot in the gold medal game.

It's quite an achievement for both teams, who were on the second tier of pre-tournament medal contenders below Canada, Russia and Sweden. The Americans and the Finns have met in each of the past two Olympics, with Finland winning their most recent quarterfinal in Turin.

"We are probably not the biggest favorites here," Kiprusoff said. "But when you play as a team, everything is possible."

Jagr played through an upper-body injury but couldn't capitalize on several golden scoring chances in what was almost certainly his final Olympic game for the fifth-seeded Czechs, who barely reached the quarterfinals Tuesday with a perilous 2-1 overtime victory over Latvia, the lowest seed. The 38-year-old Jagr said little about his future — or anything — afterward.

"It always comes to the goaltender, whoever makes better saves," Jagr said. "Unless you get such scoring power — nobody really has it, (except) Canada."

Indeed, both teams play a deliberate puck-possession style which led to sharp end-to-end action but few scoring chances. Both goalies are among the tournament's best, and neither had to make any exceptional saves during the first two scoreless periods.

Hagman scored during a power play created when Martin Erat accidentally shot the puck over the glass for a delay-of-game call, which he protested mightily. The Czechs then inexplicably pulled Vokoun with 1:45 to play while the puck wasn't even deep in the Finnish zone, and a turnover left Filppula with plenty of time to line up his empty-net shot.

As the final seconds ticked off, Jagr sat on the bench with his head in his hands, shaking his head. He was first in the postgame handshake line after leaving his stick on the bench at UBC Thunderbird Arena.

Finland and the Czechs finished the preliminary round with the same record, but the Finns received a bye on the strength of their goal differential despite a 3-0 loss to Sweden. Now they've got a date with the Americans, who haven't lost in Vancouver.

"It's not going to be easy," Teemu Selanne said. "We want to play our best game that night, and whatever happens, we can live with that."

With NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in attendance, Finland played without defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who served a one-game suspension for his dangerous hit to the head of Sweden's Patric Hornqvist on Monday. Pitkanen's absence clearly hurt Finland's floundering power play, which couldn't score in five first-period chances.

But Niskala took on a larger role in Pitkanen's absence — and his slap shot ended up deciding the game, thanks to Hagman's quick stick.

"He's a smart player, great with the puck and great on the power play," said Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen, who surprised many by choosing the Swedish Elite League defenseman for the Olympics. "He was the main reason we scored that one goal."

About The Author

Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
Pin It

Speaking of...

More by Staff Report

Latest in Other Sports

© 2019 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation