World Lax: Israel holds off Finland to keep spot in top world group

Team Israel at the 2019 WILC. (Photo credit: Cliff McCaig)

The fifth place game at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships was just as important as the bronze or gold medal games, with a lot on the line. They may not get a medal, but the winning team gets to count themselves amongst the world’s elite as members of the top group in the next tournament.

So when Israel faced off against Finland on Saturday afternoon, the players held nothing back. Israel came into the tournament in the top five and held onto their spot, defeating a hopeful Finland team 14-9.

“Once we were no longer in contention for a medal, our coaches emphasized the importance of staying within the blue group,” said Israeli defenseman Doug Utting. “It is important for the program, our current players and future Israeli players that we stay with the top teams in the world, where we believe that we belong.”

It’s clear that there are currently tiers of talent in the world box lacrosse system. Canada and Iroquois are at the top. The USA is just behind them. Beyond that, you have the teams that are just on the cusp of competing with the elite teams: England, Israel, Finland. Five teams make up the top division in the world.

Doug Utting of Team Israel at the 2019 WILC. (Photo credit: Cliff McCaig)

England beat Israel in a tough quarterfinal, securing a top four finish, so it was up to Israel and Finland to battle it out for the last spot in what was anything but a run-of-the-mill placement game.

The first quarter was back-and-forth with Finland holding a 3-2 lead after 15 minutes. Penalties to Israel really hindered them in the first, though they were able to score once four-on-four.

“We got into some penalty trouble at the beginning of the game and they converted on their chances. Once we settled in and started to stay out of the box, we took advantage of our even strength opportunities,” Utting said.

Finland took a 5-2 lead in the second before Daniel Deckelbaum got Israel on the board halfway through the frame with an underhand rip, beating Riku Jokela five-hole. Jean-Luc Chetner then scored shorthanded to get Israel within a goal. Robert Raittila got one back for Finland with a low-to-high underhand shot, but Israel then scored four straight.

Zachary Pall scored on a shot as he was being pushed to the ground. Kyle Bergman tied the game at six just 30 seconds later after a turnover in Israel’s end allowed him to run in uncontested on Jokela. Finland got mixed up on a change while Israel still had possession, and Israel took full advantage of it, with Pall putting them up 7-6. Isaac Bock added an empty netter before the half was out.

“We always focus on staying together and believing in each other and I think that showed throughout the tournament and in that final game,” said Utting.

Bergman kept the Israeli run going 19 seconds into the second half, but Finland broke up the run with a pair of goals. Israeli goaltender Zach Higgins got a piece of Raittila’s shot, but not enough. Anssi Kaisalmi scored on a delayed penalty with a blast from the line. Bock replied with a drive to the net, scoring five hole, and Bergman scored on a dive shot, over the shoulder of Jokela to make it 11-8 and keep Israel’s lead intact. Kaisalmi potted a second goal before the period was out.

Israel’s Zach Higgins makes a save on Finland’s Robert Raittila at the 2019 WILC. (Photo credit: Cliff McCaig)

Israel scored the only three goals of the final quarter. A fake from Chetner allowed Deckelbaum to open the period and make it 12-9 Israel. Bock’s fourth of the game came on the power play. Adam Fishman capped the game with five minutes left as Israel’s tenacious defense worked to limit shots and recover loose balls.

Chetner led Israel in scoring throughout the tournament with 13 goals and 26 assists. Zach Higgins played all but one half of one game. Utting praised both players.

“Higgy really kept us in a lot of games and came up with some huge saves in crucial moments. Chet has been great for us, not only against Finland, but here this week as well, taking charge of the offence and causing havoc for teams transitioning out of their zone.”

The win means the blue group at the 2023 WILC in the Czech Republic will consist of the same five teams as 2019. It may still be awhile before anyone can dethrone Canada, but with more experience, look for Israel to be a lot more competitive against the top three.