World Juniors: Finland edges Latvia, 2-1, in first game of relegation series

The defending gold medalists at the World Juniors got a big win today over Latvia.

But it wasn’t for a medal. It was to avoid relegation. Finland won the game, 2-1, while outshooting their opponents by a wide margin, 45-24.

The Finns still have to beat the Latvians once more in the best-of-three series, which continues tomorrow in Montreal. Game three, if necessary, is scheduled for Thursday at Bell Centre.

The loser of the series is relegated to Division I Group A, where next year it will battle the likes of Germany, France, and Kazakhstan.

Today’s game was tied 1-1 before 17-year-old forward Kristian Vesalainen scored nine minutes into the third period.

Related: Finland fires coach Rautakorpi after letdown at World Juniors

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    Bruins can make it three straight wins tonight


    The return of Frank Vatrano couldn’t have come at a better time for the Boston Bruins, who could be without David Backes for a while.

    The B’s announced Saturday that Backes is out indefinitely with a concussion. Vatrano only recently returned to the lineup, after the 22-year-old was forced to undergo offseason surgery to repair torn ligaments in his foot.

    In Saturday’s 3-1 victory over the Sabres, Vatrano scored while skating with Backes’ most common linemates, center David Krejci and winger Ryan Spooner.

    Not only did Vatrano open the scoring, the local boy got his first-ever goal at TD Garden.

    “Being from [Massachusetts], obviously everyone’s dream growing up is to score in the Garden,” said Vatrano, per CSN New England. “For me, it was pretty cool to be able to do that and it was even better that we got a win out of it.”

    Saturday’s win was also encouraging because Patrice Bergeron scored again. Though he only has seven goals on the season, he has three in his last five games.

    On top of that, the B’s got a goal from a bottom-six forward. Halfway through the second period, Tim Schaller cut hard to the net and made it 3-0 on a backhand that somehow fooled Robin Lehner.

    Read more: It’s been a frustrating season for the Boston Bruins

    The B’s will try to make it three straight wins tonight in Newark, where the free-falling Devils have lost four of their last five at Prudential Center and been outscored by a combined margin of 20 to 10.

    A Bruins win could catapult them into second place in the Atlantic Division, moving ahead of idle Ottawa.

    But the B’s can’t get too comfortable. Not far behind, the Leafs are streaking, and the Lighting and Panthers are fully capable of going on a run.

    Key week ahead for the Canucks, who need to keep the wins coming


    When we last checked in on the Vancouver Canucks, they were desperate for wins, but hoping the return of defenseman Alex Edler would give them a boost.

    They haven’t lost since.

    And in beating three pretty good teams — the Kings, Ducks, and Oilers — they’ve set themselves up for a nice winning streak.

    This week, they host Colorado, Arizona, and Calgary.

    “We have got lots of confidence in the group right now,” forward Bo Horvat told reporters after Saturday’s 3-2 shootout victory in Edmonton. “It has been a long time since we have won three straight, and a while since we have had a fairly healthy lineup. To get some guys back in on the back end and be rolling up front, it gives us lots of confidence.”

    Indeed, the Canucks’ back end does look a lot better with their two best defensemen, Edler and Chris Tanev, healthy again. Recall that disastrous finish in Carolina three weeks ago when Vancouver’s six d-men were Erik Gudbranson, Luca Sbisa, Ben Hutton, Troy Stecher, Alex Biega and Nikita Tryamkin.

    Gudbranson is hurt now, but Edler and Stecher form an effective top duo, followed by Tanev and Sbisa on the second pairing, with Hutton and Trymakin together on the bottom set.

    On the season, the Canucks are 7-2-2 with both Edler and Tanev in the lineup. Win tonight against the NHL’s worst team and Vancouver (17-18-3) will move to within a single point of a wild-card spot.

    Now, all that being said, it remains unlikely that the Canucks will make the playoffs. They may have three winnable games this week, but the schedule gets a lot tougher later this month and into February.

    But there’s at least a glimmer of hope.

    “We need to put together a string,” Daniel Sedin said recently. “If we win a few games, we’re back in it. If we lose a few, we’re out of it. Now is the time.”

    An interesting stretch awaits the Flyers

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    In the wake of a 10-game winning streak, the Philadelphia Flyers have hit a rough patch, with just one victory in their last seven.

    Granted, this would be more of a concern if they hadn’t played so well Sunday night in Anaheim, where they lost 4-3 in a shootout.

    But the Flyers have lost ground all the same. They’re now just three points up on Tampa Bay for the second wild-card spot, and Toronto, Florida and Carolina are lurking back there too.

    Last night, the Flyers put 54 shots on Ducks goalie John Gibson, plus one more for good measure on Jonathan Bernier.

    “We deserved better, we played a helluva hockey game,” head coach Dave Hakstol said, per CSN Philly. “For the most part, our execution was pretty good and we had a lot of quality chances. Couldn’t get an extra one to go in.”

    That’s hockey. During their 10-game run, the Flyers won a couple of games they easily could’ve lost. In the end, these things have a way of evening out.

    “Put up 55 shots, you’re going to win most games,” said d-man Michael Del Zotto. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t get the two points. We’ve been in a little bit of a lull, but we keep playing like that, we’ll be successful.”

    The Flyers return home to face the Rangers Wednesday (on NBCSN). Their next game after that is a big one, with the Lightning paying a visit Saturday afternoon. And after that, they play seven of their next 10 on the road, where they’re a modest 8-9-2 so far this season.

    If there’s one area where Hakstol’s group could improve, it’s defensively. At 2.97, the Flyers’ goals-against average ranks 25th in the NHL. Last season, when they made the playoffs, it finished 12th at 2.26.

    Obviously, some (or maybe much) of that falls on the goaltending. It was great last season; it’s been disappointing this season, save for the odd solid stretch from Steve Mason (14-12-5, .904).

    In fact, Hakstol’s decision to go with Mason against the Ducks was called into question by reporters.

    From CSN Philly:

    Flyers coach Dave Hakstol opted to play Steve Mason, who had a bruised left forearm from the Sharks loss, rather than go with rookie Anthony Stolarz, who was completely healthy and deserved the shot after 40 impressive minutes in relief during the 2-0 defeat in San Jose.

    It’s almost seemed a panic move to salvage two points from the three-game road trip. This was Mason’s 21st start in 23 games.

    When pressed as to why not allow Stolarz to play, Add Contact FormHakstol said, he “gave it consideration.”

    “He played very well coming in the other night,” Hakstol said. “He did an outstanding job. That being said, Mase has been the guy who has done a great job for us. I didn’t give it a whole lot of second thought.”

    With Michal Neuvirth getting close to returning from his knee injury, it will be interesting to see how Hakstol deploys his netminders. Neuvirth was not playing well before he got hurt. His record was good, at 4-2-0, but his save percentage was a ghastly .859.

    If Neuvirth continues to struggle when he’s healthy, it’s either going to be a very busy stretch drive for Mason, or Stolarz could be called back to make a few starts.

    Stolarz, 22, is 2-0-0 with a .938 save percentage for the Flyers. He also had great numbers in the AHL (6-2-0, .927) before he was recalled.

    Related: Stolarz making case to be with Flyers full-time next season

    Habs give backup Montoya a two-year contract extension


    The Montreal Canadiens have given goalie Al Montoya a two-year contract extension.

    The deal is worth a reported $1.065 million per season, and it gives the Habs a goalie to expose in the expansion draft.

    Montoya is 4-4-2 with a .909 save percentage. Most notably, he allowed all 10 goals in a 10-0 loss to Columbus on Nov. 4.

    However, he’s bounced back fairly well since. The 31-year-old finished December with a save percentage of .925 for the month.