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World Juniors: underdogs no more, Finland wins gold again

With three gold medals in the past six seasons, Finland is staking claim to elite status at the world juniors and a combination of talent and trust is making it happen. We also may have a bit of a 2019 draft debate on our hands.

VANCOUVER - This is getting to be a bit of a habit, isn’t it? Finland won its third world juniors in six years, beating Team USA 3-2 in a whirlwind game that saw 2019 draft prospect Kappo Kakko net the winner at the side of the net with a minute and a half to go in regulation. Though expectations weren’t high for Finland coming into the tournament (though getting defensemen Henri Jokiharju and Urho Vaakanainen from the NHL was a big boost), this team isn’t interested in being underdogs anymore - even if coach Jussi Ahokas has used the term with the media.

“The big thing for us was to win it in a small rink,” Ahokas said. “We hadn’t done that before and now we’ve done it. That’s big for Finnish hockey. Of course you always need great players, but it was how we got together, how the team worked, how well our leaders played. We were really tight.”

Finland has been perplexing during their great run; if they don’t win gold, they don’t even come close and in 2017, the team had to play in the relegation series, collapsing one year after winning gold. For Jokiharju, there isn’t much mystery to unravel.

“Win the right games, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “The trust never fell with our team. The group games weren’t that good, but who cares? We won the right games - first Canada, then Switzerland, now USA. We’re the best in the world.”

Indeed, Finland lost to the Americans in the group stage, and to the Swedes, but there was an underlying confidence that crested at the right time - namely, the quarterfinal shocker over Canada. The seeds for that upset had been planted in exhibition play, when Finland beat Canada, however.

“We got the confidence when we played the pre-tournament game here against Canada,” said defenseman Oskari Laaksonen. “Everybody opened up, like ‘OK, we can beat the Canadian team, we can beat anybody.’ The group stage was pretty tough for us, we just charged to the Canada game and it was flow after that, everybody was working hard.”

Most important in the gold-medal game was Finland’s willingness and ability to match the speed and physicality of the Americans. Team USA did a great job confounding Russia in the semis, but the Finns were prepared for their final assignment.

“Playing the US and Canada, those North American teams play so fast,” Jokiharju said. “You have to match the pace and be even faster.”

It also helped that Finland got a balanced effort from its forward group. Of course Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was tremendous in net, but it would all have been for nothing had Kakko not popped in his own rebound for the game-winner. Kakko, who now opens up a serious debate over whether he or incumbent Jack Hughes should go first overall in the 2019 draft (which will be held in Vancouver, coincidentally), was particularly good all night and had a meaty role on the team’s second line. While Canada searches for answers as to where things went wrong, it’s hard not to look at the play of Kakko and 2020 draft prospect Anton Lundell as an argument for upside over age.

“We let him play,” Ahokas said. “He had the confidence, we gave him the role and that was the biggest thing. He’s a future superstar.”

And like another Finnish star, Patrik Laine, Kakko already has a gold medal from the world juniors. He’ll return to TPS Turku in Finland’s top league now, but it’s fair to say he already has his signature game for the season.

“It’s an incredible feeling to get that kind of goal,” Kakko said.

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