In a tournament seemingly full of highly anticipated games, this one may have been the most anticipated: USA vs Finland, Auston Matthews vs Patrik Laine, the two leading candidates to be taken No. 1. overall in this year’s NHL Draft.
Matthews came in as the consensus top pick, but Laine had been the talk of the tournament with 6 points in his first two games, setting a new record for most points in a IIHF World Championship for an 18-year-old.
“We have a good power play and that’s helped us a lot,” Laine said after his country’s wins over Belarus and Germany. As for his personal success, he said, “I think we have good chemistry on our line – those guys (Jussi Jokinen and Aleksander Barkov) have helped me out a lot. It’s just nice to be here and I think I deserve it.”
When questioned about the upcoming game against the Americans, he responded, “I think it’s going to be a great game – a really good team, really good players. We’ve gotta be careful with those guys.”
Of course, what everyone wanted to hear about was his thoughts on the match-up with Matthews, but Laine wasn’t having any of it.
“I don’t really care. I just want to play my own game and not think about those things. The people in the stands can think about those things, but I just want to play hockey.”
Finland won the game 3–2, but after putting up big numbers in his first two games, Laine was kept in check this game, being held off the scoresheet and having a bit of a defensive lapse on the first American goal, which was set up by Matthews.
“I thought it was offside and I thought I heard a whistle, so I stopped for a second and the U.S. guys started attacking and I said, ‘oh sh*t!’” After a pause, and a chuckle, he added, “But that’s my mistake and I’ve gotta learn from those.”
“It was the worst game from me in a long time. I don’t know why, but in every tournament there’s going to be one bad game. The most important thing is the three points.”
After putting on a show in the first two games, the Americans employed a much more physical style of play on Laine and Finland’s other big snipers, and that seemed to get under Laine’s skin at times.
“I noticed that it was a little more physical than the other two games,” he admitted. “It was harder to play.”
On the other side, Matthews wasn’t in a great mood either, mostly due to the fact that his team lost the game.
“It would have been nice to get the win tonight but that’s how it goes,” Matthews shrugged. He added that “we weren’t able to get too many scoring chances and that cost us throughout the game.”
Matthews himself had an assist, 2 shots on goal, and had a great chance in the dying seconds that narrowly missed. However, in the faceoff circle he was only 6-for-15. In particular, he was beaten by Barkov on several key draws.
“Normally centremen are matched up against each other and he’s a big, strong guy and he was quick on the draws tonight,” Matthews said of Barkov, when asked whether he was a more appropriate player to be compared with instead of Laine.
Nonetheless, Team USA head coach John Hynes has been happy with what he’s seen from Matthews so far, and rewarded him with a fair bit of ice time in the closing minutes as his team was pressing for the tying goal. Lined up at the top of the circle for a key faceoff with 15 seconds to play, Matthews managed to get a shot away that whizzed just over the crossbar.
“I think when you look at Auston, he’s the same player every game, and that’s the great thing about him,” said Hynes. “He’s a real team player and he shows up every night.”
And Finnish head coach Kari Jalonen was happy with what he got from Laine, noting that he wasn’t interested in how he matched up against Matthews.
“Yeah, that’s what everyone’s been talking about, but Laine has been normal and I thought he played a real good game tonight,” he said. “I’m not concerned if he’s the No. 1 pick or not, I just want him to be concerned about this team, like everyone else.”
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