Finland

Associated Press

Kakko scores late, Finland wins third WJC in past six years

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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.

Finland knew.

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


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Bad luck sends Finland to semis, Canada out at WJC

Associated Press
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Oh, Canada.

No, not the country’s national anthem, but rather their rotten luck in overtime of their quarterfinal game against Finland at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Vancouver on Wednesday night.

Both teams fought to a hard 1-1 draw through the first 60 minutes of the game, forcing a sudden-death overtime frame.

Canada has never come up empty-handed at a WJC when played on home soil, but all good things must come to end eventually. But maybe a country could have been let down a little easier?

Canada was given a golden opportunity to end the game when they were awarded a penalty shot just after the one-minute mark of the extra frame. Step up Maxime Comtois, Canada’s captain:

OK, back to the drawing board.

Their second golden opportunity to send themselves to the semis came shortly after.

Noah Dobson of Canada had the game on his stick after a beautiful cross-ice pass Vegas Golden Knights prospect Cody Glass. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was nowhere to be found in the Finnish crease. All Dobson had to do was get good wood on it and Canada was moving on.

Instead, this happened:

How much are those sticks worth again?

Utunen’s shot went off the stick of Glass, past Vancouver Canucks prospect goaltender Michael DiPietro, sending Finland into a frenzy and Canada into the can.

Ouch.

Finland moves onto the semifinals against Switzerland, who provided the first big upset of the day by defeating Sweden 2-0 in the other quarterfinal.

The United States was up 2-0 in the third period against the Czech Republic in the third quarterfinal game of the day.

Russia, meanwhile, will face Slovakia later on Wednesday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Personal challenges for Teemu Selanne starting season in Finland

Starting the season in Europe is certainly a tough way to start the season. Between adjusting to ridiculous time changes, language barriers, and jet lag, it’s a difficult way to kick start a new year. The good thing is that each team and just about every player faces the same set of challenges overseas as they try to prepare themselves for the 82 game grind.

Then there’s someone like Teemu Selanne. For Selanne, starting his (probable) final season in Finland would be like Wayne Gretzky returning and starting the season in Toronto—only if Gretzky hadn’t played a season there in twenty years. From the moment the NHL Premiere was announced and the Ducks found out they were headed to Helsinki, Selanne knew the 2011-12 season was going to be unlike anything else he’s ever experienced.

Before the Ducks left for Europe, Selanne was asked about starting the season in Finland for the first time in his career.

“I don’t really know what to expect,” Selanne said. “Obviously, it was 2003 [World Championships] the last time we played there. It’s going to be fun. Obviously, they sold out the game so quickly and people are telling me that’s what they’re really talking about there. They’re pretty spoiled. This is the third or fourth time when an NHL team has started the season there; so they’ve seen a lot of NHL games there. But I think this is going to be a little more special.

“I think it’s going to be a great experience,” Selanne continued. “Obviously, it’s a very special place for me. That’s my hometown and we’re going to play against my home team, so it’s going to be very exciting. It’s going to be like a zoo too. It’s going to be a lot of people, [people] trying to take a piece of that week. But I think it’s going to be a great experience, I’m very excited.”

Selanne also acknowledged that there would be challenges for the team starting in Europe. Yet he saw the silver lining of the team traveling together as a bonding experience to start the season.

“Obviously, the trip is going to be a little tough,” Selanne said. “We’re going there, 10 hours time difference, and coming back. But I really believe that’s going to be really good for our team to start the season right away—with hanging around together for four or five days before the first game and get the team feeling again. I think that’s going to be very important process for us. I’m looking forward to going there. I know it’s going to be a great experience for my teammates.”

For Selanne personally, it’s going to be tougher for him than his teammates. He’s revered in Finland and dealing with an entire new set of circumstances.

“People need tickets and people ask if I can come there,” Selanne said. “Obviously, I have to be tough with that. There’s no time to do too much. We are there to win the games and start focusing on the season… Obviously we need to stay focused there.

“It’s going to be tough. I already heard that my PR guy back home has 150 interviews ready. I said, you know what, forget it… They come here and they always expect you to have time. It’s just funny—it works though.”

The trip got off to a good start as the Ducks won their final preseason game against Jokerit in overtime. Now, the real heavy lifting gets started when the regular season kicks off against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday in Helsinki. Selanne and the Ducks will try to navigate all of the external distractions and put their best game on the ice—because at the end of the crazy circus, there are two important regular season games to be played.

Vesa Toskala: “The last few seasons haven’t been what I hoped for”

Just say the name “Vesa Toskala” and you’re bound to get a reaction from Toronto Maple Leafs fans. You might have a four-letter word spit in your direction. You may watch the individual double-over with uncontrollable laughter. You might see them clinch their fist and glare at you. Whatever the reaction, it’s safe to say that the Vesa Toskala era in Toronto didn’t end like most fans wanted it to. Come to think of it—the majority of Toskala’s time with the Leafs was less than spectacular.

His North American career started with so much promise. The Sharks thought enough of him that when the team had Toskala, Evgeni Nabokov, and Miikka Kiprusoff—it was Kiprusoff who was traded to the Calgary Flames. His time in San Jose peaked during his last season with the club (2006-07) with 26 wins in 38 games for the Sharks. He was eventually traded to the Maple Leafs who hoped he would blossom as he got out from behind Evgeni Nabokov’s shadow. Needless to say, it didn’t really work out how the Leafs or Toskala hoped it would.

After wearing out his welcome in Toronto, he was traded to Anaheim. Before he made it into a single game with the Ducks, he was sent off to the Calgary Flames. All in all, he was a member of three teams, played 32 games for two teams, and earned only 9 victories. Even though his numbers looked much better in Calgary down the stretch, his .874 save percentage and 3.66 goals against average for Toronto will be how most people remember his 2009-10 season. Toskala included:

“The last few seasons haven’t been what I hoped for,” he said. “It will be nice to return to play for Ilves. I’m feeling strong, and I think we have a good team that can definitely go further than last year.”

Last season Toskala bounced around looking for a permanent gig even though he turned down a job with the Calgary Flames. Yes, really.  He played in a couple of games with AIK in Sweden before his one-month contract expired. For fans who want to know what the end of the road looks like, this is it.

Instead of packing it in, Toskala is giving it one last shot to get his game back on track. He’s signed a one-year deal with Ilves Tampere in the Finnish Elite League (SM-Liiga). In his last season with Ilves Tampere, he went 21-12-5 with a 2.14 goals against average. Both the team and Toskala hope he can recapture the magic that made him one of the most promising goaltenders last decade. At only 34 years old, there’s still time for Toskala to revitalize his career. All he needs to do is play a little better.

Well, all he has to do is play a lot better.

New coach Mike Yeo travels to Finland to meet with Wild stars

There were those who thought GM Chuck Fletcher and the Minnesota Wild were taking a sizeable risk when they hired Houston Aeros headman Mike Yeo. Some thought the 37-year-old (now 38) was too young for a head coaching position in the NHL. There were those who thought he needed more seasoning since he’d only been a head coach for a single season at the AHL level. Some thought he was awful as an assistant in Pittsburgh, some thought he was too much like former coach Todd Richards, and others wondered if Minnesota hired him because he was a cheap alternative to the other available candidates.

The man has his work ahead of him if he wants to win over the skeptics.

With all of that in mind, Yeo isn’t waiting around for training camp to make his mark on next year’s team. Accompanied by GM Fletcher, Yeo recently flew to Finland to have face-to-face conversations with two of the most important players on next year’s roster: captain Mikko Koivu and goaltender Niklas Backstrom. He understands that if he wants to win over the locker room from the start, it’s essential to be on the same page with the team most important returning players.

Yeo spoke the Star Tribune about the importance of meeting his new captain face-to-face:

“Mikko is our captain. He’s a guy when it comes to the coach, he’s going to have these guys on board and going out and doing the things you want them to do. If we can make a little headway with that and hopefully get him buying into and believing in the things we’re talking about right now as opposed to a month into the season, then we’re just going to be that much further ahead.”

Koivu is under contract for the next seven seasons with a no-movement clause, so it’s doubtful he’s going anywhere any time soon. Seven years in today’s NHL for a coach is an eternity—but if Yeo wants to last for a while, it’s imperative that he has a good working relationship with his on-ice leader. If he has Koivu’s support from the beginning, it should make the transition much easier as he tries to install his new system for his new team.

Yeo understands that for the Wild to be successful next season, Koivu and Backstrom will have to lead the team on the ice, in the locker room, and on the stat sheet. Koivu tied for the team lead with 62 points last season—yet each of the other top four scorers from last season have either been traded or left via free agency (Havlat, Brunette, and Burns). Yeo and the Wild are depending on him to recapture the 71 point season from 2009-10 while continuing to be one of the best two-way centers in the league.

Similarly, Yeo will need Niklas Backstrom to be a reliable backstop for the team if they want to take the next step to the playoffs. The Finnish netminder put up good numbers with a .916 save percentage and 2.66 goals against average. If the Wild want to be successful though, they’ll need the all-star goaltender to put up great numbers. No matter how you look at it, a sub-.500 record for a goaltender isn’t going to get it done.

Yeo will have plenty of work as he attempts to silence the critics, change the team culture, and improve the meager Wild; all while he tries to meld all of the offseason newcomers with the players who are already in place. If he can get Koivu and Backstrom on his side, it’ll go a long way towards getting all 22 guys pulling on the same end of the rope. They’re only two players—but they’re two of the most important.

The next step is getting the other 20 players to buy in during training camp.