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Finns make statement with rout of Slovakia

All eyes were on the Russians as perhaps being the dark-horse team to watch during the IIHF World Junior Championship.

They're not now.

Finland -- the hockey-loving nation that has produced the likes of Jari Kurri, Teemu Selanne and Esa Tikkanen -- has managed to catch everyone's attention through four preliminary-round games and with good reason.

They're indeed good enough to make a run at the gold.

The Finns served notice they'd be a tough out in a 3-2 overtime loss to the defending champion United States. They've since taken out their frustrations at not getting that decision on the Swiss, Germans and Slovaks.

Finland overwhelmed Slovakia, 6-0, Friday afternoon before an estimated 10,000 in HSBC Arena to post its third straight win of the championship. The Finns took a brief two-point lead in the Group A standings with the triumph, but that was erased when Team USA defeated Switzerland, 2-1, on Friday evening, earning the Americans a bye into the medal-round semifinals. Finland will meet Russia in a quarterfinal matchup Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Are the Finns a dark horse?

"I don't really want to comment on that but I think we're a competitor every year we come here," said forward Erik Haula, who finished with two goals against Slovakia and has three in the tournament. "We've been battling through it real hard for four games and it's paid off. I'm really proud of our guys. Now we just have to keep it [going], play the next game as hard as we can and go to the next round."

Finland wasted little time seizing control of Friday's game, scoring three times during a first period in which it outshot the Slovaks, 17-2. Miikka Salomaki, Jyrki Jokipakka and Haula all found the back of the net.

The Finns, who feature 11 NHL draft picks and at times skated around Slovak players at will, flexed their might during a 1-minute, 55-second span in the second period when Joonas Donskoi scored on the power play and Haula followed with a short-handed marker with 11:20 left.

Valtteri Virkkunen also scored for Finland (3-0-1-0), while goalie Joni Ortio -- a Calgary Flames prospect -- was rarely tested in stopping all 10 shots he faced through two periods before giving way to backup Sami Aittokallio. The Finns outshot Slovakia, 43-17.

Finland will face a much stiffer test in the medal round, but it looks like a team that can't be ignored.

"Before the tournament started -- we knew we'd have a good team here," Ortio said. "We were confident coming here so it's not really a surprise to us that we've played this well."

e-mail: mrodriguez@buffnews.com

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