Revenge is sweet, especially when it’s shrouded in gold.
Just ask Finland, who sought out and tasted retribution’s sweet nectar in a thrilling 3-2 win against the United States in the gold medal game at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Vancouver on Saturday.
Kaapo Kakko, who will be high on the draft board in the upcoming the 2019 NHL Draft, scored with 1:26 left in the third period to break a 2-2 tie, giving the Finns their third WJC win in the past six years (fourth total) while simultaneously cementing the Scandinavian nation as the crème de la crème in hockey development over the past several years.
The U.S. seemed to have a limitless number of tools to beat any team put in front of them. If one well ran dry, they could tap into the next, or the one after that. No situation was too tough to handle. No deficit too big.
Coming into Saturday, all of those wells were overflowing. Their speed was too much for anyone not named Sweden to handle, and in the medal round, Sweden was nowhere to be found.
Their power play was tops, operating above 30 percent. Their penalty kill was nearly impenetrable, successful well over 90 percent of the time. And when all else failed, the Americans would just outskate you to death.
They were beaten convincingly back on Dec. 31, when the Americans trounced them 4-1. What it meant for Finland at the time was simple and daunting: they’d have to through Canada on home soil — a place they had never failed to medal — if they wanted to win their third gold medal in their past six tournaments.
But it was in that game that Finland found their stride. They sent Canada crashing out of the tournament in a 2-1 overtime win. They carried that through to the semis, dispatching Switzerland 6-1 to set up their chance to right the wrong they endured as 2019 neared.
And they were well on their way to that in the third period on Saturday.
Finland opened the scoring in the second period when Jesse Ylonen fired home just after the midway mark of the game. That lead was doubled four minutes into the third period when Otto Latvala let loose to put Finland in the driver’s seat up 2-0.
But a collapse was about to happen.
The Americans reached the final by taking down the Czech Republic 3-1 in the quarters and then edging the Russians 2-1 in the semis.
They were nearly perfect throughout the tournament, only dropping an overtime decision to Sweden in the preliminary round.
They benefitted from ridiculous, undefendable speed, that deadly power play and a penalty kill that only allowed one goal all tournament.
So going down 2-0 wasn’t as daunting as it might seem, and the deficit didn’t last long.
Alexander Chmelevski pulled the U.S. to 2-1 just 61 seconds after Latvala’s insurance marker. With the momentum now swung violently in favor of the Americans, Josh Norris tied the game on a one-time 1:46 after Chmelevski gave the U.S. life, completing the hasty comeback.
The matchup between the two teams wasn’t exactly new. They had met 33 times beforehand, with Finland owning a 16-15-2 record. But they had never met in a gold medal final — somewhat surprising given that both teams are responsible for five of the past nine goal medals.
The U.S. just needed more of the same coming into the game if they were to be successful.
For the Finns, it was about neutering as many of the American’s threats as possible while capitalizing on the momentum they had created for themselves.
The Finns just seemed to want it more.
The U.S. had four power plays inside the first 30 minutes of the game, and five total in the game. That should have been a death sentence for Finland, but instead, the Americans struggled to find opportunities, and when they did, Finland’s best player on the night — goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen — shut the door.
The U.S. went 0-for-5.
Luukkonen was a beast throughout the tournament. The Buffalo Sabres second-round selection in 2017 entered the game with a .933 save percentage, and once again proved his worth in Saturday’s final, turning aside 26 shots.
Kakko, with his late game-winner, was named the player of the game.
The best goalie of the tournament was handed to Russia’s Pyotr Kochetkov, who had a .953 save percentage and a 1.45 goals against average with four wins, including one in the bronze medal game earlier on Saturday.
The best defenseman was Russia’s Alexander Romanov, who had one goal and seven assists in eight games, and the top forward was Team USA’s Ryan Poehling, who finished with five goals and three assists in eight games.
Poehling was also named the tournament’s most valuable player.
2019 WJC All-Star Team:
G: Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen, FIN
D: Alexander Romanov, RUS
D: Erik Brannstrom, SWE
F: Grigori Denisenko, RUS
F: Philipp Kurashev, SUI
F: Ryan Poehling, USA