Finland are the champions of the world. They did it the hard way by beating Team USA 3-2 for gold at the World Junior Championship in Vancouver on Saturday night. Kaapo Kakko scored the golden goal with 1:26 left in regulation to stun the Americans at Rogers Centre.
The 2019 Draft Eligible top prospect lifted his country to the gold medal in dramatic fashion. In a battle between the two top projected picks next year, it was Kakko who got the clutch goal to win it for Finland. Ironically, 17-year old American Jack Hughes had a golden opportunity to be the hero. Following a stirring comeback from two goals down, Hughes had a mini break and was in on Finnish netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukonen. But the Sabres prospect denied his five-hole attempt to keep the game tied.
For most of the night, it looked like Finland would easily avenge a New Year’s Eve loss to USA. Despite getting into penalty trouble, they did a good job killing off five American power plays in the first two periods. Whether it was superb penalty killing by the D and forwards, or the big save by Luukonen, they prevented USA from taking advantage on special teams.
They also got a big break early when the officials wiped out an apparent power play goal from Islanders prospect Oliver Wahlstrom. He dug out a rebound and scored into an open net. However, replay confirmed the refs’ call. Due to IIHF rules pertaining to the crease area, a good goal was negated. They felt that Sasha Chmelevski was still in the blue paint when Wahlstrom scored. Even though the Sharks prospect was pushed in, it was tacky.
A still disappointed Mattias Samuelsson didn’t agree with the IIHF ruling. It’s hard to blame him. It was a tough call that definitely hurt the American side. They thought they had an early lead. Instead, it went the other way, giving Finland momentum. Such is the controversial crease rule, which has been outdated since Brett Hull scored the Stanley Cup winner in ’99. That’s all I’ll say about it.
Truth be told, USA had plenty of opportunities to overcome the Wahlstrom no goal. However, they only managed eight shots in a lackluster first that saw Finland get the better chances. They outshot USA 13-8. Their speed was a factor at five-on-five. Indeed, Canadiens goalie property Cayden Primeau was superb in stopping all 13 shots sent his way. He was outstanding throughout the tournament, overtaking Kyle Keyser in net. Primeau finished with 28 saves to give his side a chance.
After no scoring in the first, it took until the second half of the second period for Finland to break the ice. Following consecutive kills by the Finns, Blackhawks prospect Evan Barratt took a ill advised goaltender interference minor penalty by bumping into Luukonen with 10:04 left in the second.
Jesse Ylonen beat Primeau with a good one-timer from the point off a Oskari Laaksonen feed for a 1-0 lead at 31:31 of the contest. Valtteri Puustinen started the play to earn a key secondary assist.
Team USA got their fifth and final chance on the power play over a minute later when Teemu Engberg tripped up Chmelevski entering the Finland zone. Once again, they failed to capitalize. Finland continued to do a good job taking care of the front of Luukonen’s net. He mostly faced low shots which he ate up. Other USA attempts went wide missing its intended target. It was frustrating.
A Wahlstrom tripping minor with three minutes remaining put USA on to the penalty kill for a third time. Logan Cockerill was one of the hardest working players all game. On a earlier Finland power play, his hustle led to a Chmelevski chance that Luukonen gloved. Cockerill was one of the key penalty killers who did a good job.
Despite being outplayed, USA only trailed by one entering the third. And what a third it was. It’ll be remembered for a while by both sides. Especially Finland.
Faceoffs were a huge key to the game for Suomi. They executed well on offensive draws during the game. Otto Latvala scored off a good faceoff win from the point. It was the work by teammates Rasmus Kupari and leading scorer Aleksi Heponiemi that resulted in a good shot from Latvala beating Primeau for a 2-0 lead with 14 minutes remaining.
The way Finland was defending, it looked like the end. However, that second goal woke up Team USA. Just 61 seconds later, Chmelevski finally got the resilient Americans on the board when he scored from a tough angle on a rebound of a Jack Hughes shot. Noah Cates led Hughes in who was denied by Luukonen. But the puck caromed out to Chmelevski, who was able to steer it in from a sharp angle before a scrambling Luukonen could recover.
Finally starting to take the play to their opponent, USA wasn’t done. Another surge resulted in a highlight reel pass by Chmelevski to a wide open Josh Norris for a beautiful one-timer past Luukonen to tie the game at two with 11:13 left. Just like that, USA responded with two straight goals within a 1:46 timespan. Cates picked up the secondary helper by feeding Chmelevski, who skated and threaded a perfect no look backhand saucer feed across for Norris’ tying goal.
Suddenly, it was Team USA with all the momentum. They looked like they would find a way to win a fifth gold in this prestigious tournament. The turning point was when Hughes got behind the Finland D and tried to beat Luukonen with a quick wrist shot. But the very cool Luukonen shut the door to keep the game tied. Let’s not forget that this was only Hughes’ fourth game of the tournament. He missed the last three of the preliminary round due to a injury. He certainly made a impact in the championship game. After the heartbreaking conclusion, he sounded every bit like a teenager.
The difference at the end was the execution by Finland. They played to win the game in regulation. Both teams did. That created a scenario where someone found a way to win before the 20-minute four-on-four in sudden death. Kakko scored the game-winner through hard work off another good faceoff play.
On it, Henri Jokiharju got the puck to Anton Lundell for a low point shot on Primeau. Unable to handle the tough shot, the goalie left it up to his defense to clear the puck. Unfortunately, Kakko dug it out by beating captain Mikey Anderson to the spot and flipped a backhand into a open side for the stunning go-ahead tally with 1:26 to go. It was a good play by a strong player, who used his size to get the golden goal.
That left USA with just enough time to pull Primeau for an extra attacker. Finland did a good job protecting the lead. A long prayer from Hughes beyond the red line was answered by Luukonen, who put it in the corner. He was mobbed by excited teammates who celebrated the well earned victory.
It’s funny how things turned out. Finland was the one team that was overlooked entering the elimination stage due to losing twice in Group B to Sweden and USA. They certainly had enough skill and will to pull it off. Full credit to captain Aarne Talvitie, who did a excellent job leading the way. The Devils prospect is the kind of gritty player you appreciate in tournaments like these. He took some bumps and bruises in the gold medal game, but didn’t miss a shift.
There’s no shame in losing for Team USA. They still earned a silver medal. As a humble Hughes noted in the interview above, they’ve medaled in four consecutive years at the WJC. No small accomplishment. This wasn’t an overwhelming favorite like past championship teams. They were a superb team with the secondary pieces such as Chmelevski, Tyler Madden, Jason Robertson, Cockerill and Norris stepping up.
Canadiens 2017 first round pick Ryan Poehling was selected as the tournament’s best forward. He led USA with five goals and three assists totaling eight points, finishing in a three-way tie for second behind tournament co-leaders Heponiemi and Grigori Denisenko. I might have gone with Swiss forward Philipp Kurashev (6-1-7). He was excellent for Switzerland, who upset Sweden before getting blown out 6-1 in the semis to Finland. They lost to Russia 5-2 for the bronze medal.
Best defenseman went to Russia’s Alexander Romanov. An excellent choice. The Habs’ prospect had a excellent tournament pacing all blueliners with eight points (1-7-8). He likely beat out teammate Alexander Alexeyev. American blueliner Quinn Hughes was good throughout, but didn’t produce like expected. He finished with two assists and was plus-two.
Best goalie went to Russian Pyotr Kochetkov. He also wasn’t expected to become the starter, but overtook Daniil Tarasov in net. He stoned Canada in a great New Year’s Eve game won by Russia 2-1. He only allowed two goals in a hard luck 2-1 defeat to USA in the semis. Kochetkov made 34 saves to defeat Switzerland 5-2. In five games, he posted a 1.45 GAA and .953 save percentage.
I probably would’ve given it to Luukonen. But he did lose twice in Group play, allowing a couple of bad goals in the New Year’s Eve loss to USA. I’d say he more than made up for it along with his winning teammates.
It was a great tournament full of intrigue and surprise. One that won’t be forgotten. Next year, the 2020 IIHF U20 WJC is in the Czech Republic. I can’t wait!