What a Finnish!
USA gutted by late goal in gold-medal final of WJC:
VANCOUVER — They struggled to find something, anything during the round robin and for the bulk of the world junior championship, Finland looked like a team of overhyped underachievers.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Saturday night’s medal podium.
Around the time Eeli Tolvanen’s centering pass ricocheted off Aleksi Heponiemi’s ankle, up the stick of Canadian goalie Mike DiPietro and into the net, the Finns found that thing.
On Saturday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, they also found gold medals hanging around their necks with their third WJC championship in six years, courtesy of a rockstar goaltending performance from Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and a goal with 86 seconds left in the game by forward Kaapo Kakko.
Luukkonen, the Buffalo Sabres’ second-rounder in 2017, outduelled his American counterpart Cayden Primeau, stopping 25 of 27 shots — 24 of which seemed to be clean scoring chances. He saved his best work for the American power play, shutting down the U.S. on all five man-advantage opportunities.
Jesse Ylonen gave the Finns a 1-0 lead in the second period with a power-play marker when he blew a onetimer past Primeau. Defenceman Otto Latvala then gave the Finns a 2-0 lead six minutes into the third period when his seeing-eye wrister beat Primeau before the Americans rallied with goals a minute apart by Sasha Chmelevski and Josh Norris.
Seconds after Norris tied the game, Luukkonen stopped Jack Hughes on a breakaway, setting the stage for Kaapo’s heroics.
The Finnish winger, one of the top-rated players in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, found a loose puck by Primeau on a scramble and scored the golden goal.
It was a long, strange journey for Finland, which started the tournament on Boxing Day with a tepid 2-1 loss to Sweden in Victoria and never seemed to get untracked over the preliminary portion of the event.
Despite a lineup that featured four NHL first-rounders, three of whom have played in the NHL this season, three second-rounders and Kakko, they struggled to produce offence and were drilled 4-1 by the U.S. on New Year’s Eve, their final game of the round robin.
That loss sent them to Vancouver and a matchup with the host Canadian side in the quarterfinals. With under a minute left in regulation, the Finns were trailing 1-0 before Heponiemi was credited with the Plinko goal that sent the game into overtime.
Defenceman Toni Utunen, a Canucks’ draft pick who hadn’t scored a goal in 21 games with Tappara in the Finnish Elite League, then beat DiPietro in overtime with a shot which deflected off Canadian defenceman Ty Smith.
And, suddenly, it was a bright new day for the Finns.
Finland players celebrate their gold-medal win over the United States in Vancouver last night.