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Defending champs Finland sent to relegation round of World Junior Tournament

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One year ago Finland took home its second gold medal in three years at the World Junior championships thanks in large part to its incredible trio of Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho, the top-three scorers in the tournament.

With all three players now in the NHL (Laine and Puljujarvi were two of the top-four picks in the 2016 draft to Winnipeg and Edmonton respectively; Aho, a second-round pick in 2015, is having a wonderful rookie season in Carolina) the roster for the 2017 tournament was obviously not going to be quite as good.

Other than maybe Canada, there probably is not another junior hockey program in the world that can lose a trio like that and come back with a team that is anywhere near as loaded.

But nobody expected Finland to be in the position it finds itself in now.

Thanks to Switzerland’s come-from-behind 5-4 shootout win against Denmark on Friday evening, Finland not only failed to advance to the quaterfinal round of the 2017 tournament, but it now finds itself in the relegation round of the tournament where it will have to play a best-of-three series against Latvia for the right to return to the tournament in 2018.

The loser gets relegated to Division I Group A for next year.

It is a stunning fall for Finland and marks the first time in the history of the tournament that a country has won the gold medal one year, and then had to play in the relegation round in the next tournament (via Mike Morreale of NHL.com).

Again: This is a program that has won this tournament in two of the past three seasons.

To this point Finland has yet to win a game in this year’s tournament, losing a pair of one-goal games to the Czech Republic and a surprising Denmark team, and then losing to Sweden 3-1 on Thursday.

All of that put Finland into a situation on Friday where it needed Denmark to beat Switzerland to set up what would have been a huge game on Saturday against Switzerland that could have helped Finland advance out of the preliminary round and avoid potential relegation.

For a while it seemed as if Finland was going to get that help. Denmark actually held a pair of three-goal leads on Friday evening against Switzerland (3-0 and 4-1) but could not hold on as the Swiss rallied to send the game to a shootout, where it was able to win it 1-0 thanks to a goal from Marco Miranda.

Finland’s preliminary round game against Switzerland on Saturday is now completely meaningless.

The big issue for Finland this year was a stunning lack of offense that saw the team score just four goals in its first three games. Finland scored 18 goals through the first three games a year ago, with 10 of those goals belonging to Laine, Puljujarvi, Aho and Mikko Rantonen.

All four players are currently in the NHL, with Laine currently sitting among the league’s top goal scorers.

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.