HALIFAX – The United States enjoyed a big high, then suffered an even bigger low.
Sami Lepisto’s goal at 3:59 of overtime gave Finland a 3-2 win over the Americans in quarter-final action at the IIHF World Hockey Championship Wednesday before 9,176 fans.
Trailing 2-0 with under five minutes remaining, the U.S. scored two goals 37 seconds apart to send the game to a 10-minute overtime period. But in the sudden death extra session, Lepisto broke the hearts of the U.S. when his point shot off a faceoff in the American end went through a crowd and underneath the pads of goaltender Robert Esche.
The loss by the U.S. makes it seven times in the last nine years that the Americans have failed to make it past the quarter-finals at the world championship. Finland is now off to the semifinals in Quebec City where they’ll face Russia on Friday.
“It’s a disappointment,” said U.S. forward Zach Parise. “We didn’t quit. Then, all of a sudden, you’re packing your bags. It’s a tough one for us right now.”
The Americans seemed headed to a shutout loss as they struggled to generate good scoring opportunities against a trap-happy Finnish team who clogged up the neutral zone and kept most of the play to the outside.
But the Americans broke through with 4:16 remaining in the third as Phil Kessel re-directed a point-shot by Tim Gleason over the shoulder of Finnish goaltender Niklas Backstrom. Under a minute later, the U.S. struck again as Drew Stafford broke down the right-side short-handed and fired a perfect shot into the far corner of the net.
The U.S. had more positives to build off in the final three minutes as they killed off a Finnish power play, which included being down two men for 17 seconds.
But in the four-on-four overtime, it was Finland which generated the better scoring opportunities, and it eventually led to the game-winner by Lepisto.
“It’s hard to lose like this, especially the way we played the third period,” said U.S. coach John Tortorella. “We lost a tied faceoff. Really, we won it, but we didn’t come up with the loose puck and it ends up going in the net.”
Tuomo Ruuuto potted the only goal of the first period for Finland, which also beat the Americans 3-2 in the qualifying round. The Carolina Hurricanes forward took a feed from Olli Jokinen and slid a back-hander underneath Esche from the bottom of the faceoff circle.
In the second, Finland added to its lead on the power play. Jokinen found Anssi Salmela at the point and the blueliner one-timed a shot through a crowd and over the glove of Esche.
Overall, shots favoured Finland 33-23, including 22-11 through two periods.
“When they scored their second goal, we came back stronger then we did the whole third period,” said Finnish forwad Saku Koivu, who set-up the game winner.
“You know, sometimes you get lucky. You get the bounce that you need. It feels good.”
While tough to swallow right now, the U.S. did make good strides at worlds as it showcased and young and talented team that served notice it will be a force to be reckoned with at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The majority of the U.S. roster in Halifax was aged 25-and-under, and included talents like Kessel, Parise, Patrick Kane, Patrick O’Sullivan and Dustin Brown.
“Our future is looking really good,” Parise said. “We have a lot of good young players. There is a lot to build off from this tournament, but at the same time, it’s disappointing right now.
“We felt we had a good chance to go to Quebec City, and unfortunately, that’s not the case right now. But we’ll be a good team in the future.”