What a Fin­nish!

USA gut­ted by late goal in gold-medal fi­nal of WJC:

Sunday Sports - - FRONT PAGE - ED WILLES

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.

JONATHAN HAY­WARD/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Fin­land play­ers cel­e­brate their gold-medal win over the United States in Van­cou­ver last night.

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