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Golden Lions: Finland surprises with Worlds win

Finland’s team-first approach was good for gold at the 2019 World Championship, with draft prodigy Kakko the most famous player on a low-profile roster.

Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane have Conn Smythe Trophies. Matt Murray has two Stanley Cup rings. But none of these NHL stars could stop an unheralded Team Finland from claiming gold at the 2019 World Championship.

In Slovakia, Finland iced a roster with just two players who spent any time in the NHL this season. The Finns triumphed by finishing second in group play, then knocking off flashier rosters from Sweden, Russia and Canada in the sudden-death playoff round. “Everybody’s giving everything out there,” said Finnish winger Toni Rajala of the team’s success. “Probably on paper, it looked worse because we didn’t really have NHL players. But I think we have proved it now: you don’t always need NHL players when you really play as a team and your coaches pick the right players.”

This time around, the NHL players on Finland’s roster weren’t Sebastian Aho, who starred at the 2018 worlds with 18 points in eight games, or 2016 phenom Patrik Laine, who earned MVP honors in Russia a month before he was drafted second overall by the Winnipeg Jets.

In 2019, the Finns’ NHL contingent consisted of 19-year-old defenseman Henri Jokiharju, a first-round pick who split his first North American season between the Chicago Blackhawks and AHL Rockford IceHogs, and 23-year-old winger Juho Lammikko, a third-round pick of the Florida Panthers in 2014 who has been in North America for five years and played his first 40 NHL games this season.

Jokiharju and Lammikko have combined for zero goals and 18 points in 78 NHL games. So why was this Finnish team greater than the sum of its parts? “Everybody plays together,” Lammikko said. “The systems are really good and everybody plays within the systems. It’s been fun. We’re having fun off the ice, on the ice, so I think we play as a group. Everybody trusts each other and plays for the guy next to them.”

Offensively, the Finns ranked eighth out of 16 teams in goals per game (3.1) and 10th in shooting accuracy (9.2 percent). Four Czechs, two Russians, two Canadians, a Swede and an American finished with more points than Finland’s leading scorer, Sakari Manninen, an undrafted 27-year-old who plays in the KHL. He tied for 11th in tournament scoring with two goals and 11 points in 10 games.

Towering 6-foot-8 winger Marko Anttila, Finland’s 34-year-old captain who had 15 points in 38 games for KHL Jokerit this season, delivered the clutch offense his team needed. His four goals in the tournament all came in the final three games and were all enormous: the tying goal with the Finnish net empty to force overtime in the quarterfinal win over Sweden, the only goal in the semifinal victory over Russia and Finland’s first two goals against Canada, including what proved to be the gold-medal winner.

“He’s had a long trip to get here, and what an amazing story,” said Finland defenseman Oliwer Kaski. “Unreal guy. Great player, but even better off the ice. Great captain.”

Added blueliner Miika Koivisto: “He’s the most famous person in Finland right now.”

That’s a bold statement after Kaapo Kakko did his best to stake his claim on the No. 1 spot at the NHL draft in June. Kakko led Finland with six goals, all scored in the first four games. He helped put the rest of the field on notice when he scored twice as Finland opened its preliminary round with a 3-1 win over the favored Canadians.

i’m sure Kakko is ready to have a good summer, then play in the NHL. He’s a beauty.

– Jere Sallinen

While fellow top prospect Jack Hughes was lighting it up for the U.S. at the world under-18 tournament in Sweden in April, Kakko trained with the men’s team. Strong performances in pre-tournament games in the Czech Republic helped the Finns build confidence. “We played against the Czechs, Sweden and Russia,” Kaski said. “We beat Russia, and we kind of realized that it doesn’t matter who we’re against. We can win.”

Finland’s success started on the defensive side of the puck. They finished third behind Slovakia and Canada with just 24.9 shots against per game, fourth in penalty-killing efficiency and second in goals against with just 16 goals allowed in 10 games.

Slovakian cooking agreed with the Finns: they claimed their last gold at the world championship in Bratislava eight years ago. “There’s a lot of similarities with that team,” said Kaski, who was 15 in 2011. “I remember I was watching that tournament at home. Little kid, so nervous. It’s weird. Here, I wasn’t that nervous.”

In a tournament where the goaltenders included NHL luminary Henrik Lundqvist for Sweden, two-time Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy for Russia and two-time Stanley Cup winner Murray for Canada, Finland’s lesser-known Kevin Lankinen outduelled them one by one in the playoff round.

Signed as a free agent by the Blackhawks in 2018, the 24-year-old Lankinen bounced between the ECHL and the AHL during his first season in North America. He faced just 18 shots as Finland eliminated Sweden in overtime in the quarterfinal, then 32 shots in shutting out Russia’s high-powered offense led by Ovechkin, Malkin and Nikita Kucherov in the semis.

In the gold-medal game, Canada outshot Finland 44-20, including 21-3 in the third period. Canada pressed hard for an equalizer after Anttila put the Finns ahead for good when he took a feed from behind the net and deposited the puck over Murray’s right shoulder early in the final frame.

The win in Bratislava gave Kakko his third gold medal in 14 months, after the 2018 world under-18 tournament in Russia last April and the 2019 WJC in Vancouver in January. In becoming just the seventh player to hit that trifecta, the 18-year-old also earned a pass from the NHL scouting combine, which began in Buffalo just as the national celebration was ramping up in Helsinki. “We’ll take him home for sure,” said teammate Jere Sallinen. “He can enjoy the summer now. I’m sure he’s ready to have a good summer, then play in the NHL.”

According to Sallinen, Kakko’s talent is sublime in any language. “He’s a beauty.”

And a winner.

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