Saturday, 21 May 2016

Year Of Suomi

The finalists for the IIHF Men's World Hockey Championship have been set. Canada will have an opportunity to defend the title they won last season, but the bigger story will be if the Finns can down the Canadians to become the first nation in IIHF history to win the World Championship, the World Junior Championship, and the World U18 Championship in the same year. It's not like the Finns have come out of nowhere, but this year's edition of Finland's men's program is all sorts of talented.

The World Junior Championship saw three players make their marks by dominating the tournament scoring in a big way. Patrik Laine, Sebastien Aho, and Jesse Puljujärvi emerged onto the hockey scene, had fans rising out of their seats often, and had scouts drooling at the possibility of being able to draft two out of the three young Finns. Aho, a Carolina Hurricanes draft pick, is the only one who can't be drafted, but the Hurricanes have to be happy with their pick from last year's draft.

Laine and Puljujärvi were incredible in terms of their chemistry at the tournament. Laine showed off an incredible shot that has often been compared to that of his idol, Alexander Ovechkin, while Puljujärvi demonstrated exceptional hands and vision as the setup man with a flair for finishing plays when given the opportunity. Puljujärvi was named as the 2016 World Junior MVP, and these two Finns had everyone talking about the 2016 NHL Entry Draft for good reason.

Puljujärvi went on to play for the Finnish U18 squad in Grand Forks, North Dakota at the IIHF U18 Hockey Tournament in April, and put his talents on display once more. Goaltending - always a strength for Finland - was once again bolstered by the play of the two netminders in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Leevi Laakso as both goalies played a part in helping Finland capture the gold medal. Major contributions from Eeli Tolvanen, Aapeli Rasanen, and Kasper Kotkansalo should have the Finns on the podium at future tournaments as well.

"Of course, it's a big year," winger Janne Kuokkanen told reporters. "Finland won the World Juniors and now we won this. I think it's probably the best year ever for us. If we keep working hard, maybe we will win again next year."

Of course, the final step in the trifecta is winning the 2016 IIHF Men's World Championship where both Laine and Aho are putting on another offensive display. Finland will meet Canada in Moscow on Sunday evening where the Finns took Round One by a 4-0 score in the preliminary round. Joining Laine and Aho in the dominant Finnish offence are players you'll recognize: Mikko Koivu, Jussi Jokinen, Mikael Granlund, and Aleksander Barkov. These are the players who have carried the load offensively, but there's so much more to the Finns.

If you haven't noticed him, Antti Pihlstrom is a blur on the ice and has been an effective forechecker and agitator. Teemu Pulkkinen, who has been up and down with Detroit, adds more goal-scoring talent to the third line while Jarmo Koskiranta has done everything he can to pester opposing forwards in a solid two-way role. Toss in a scoring and agitating Leo Komarov, and this Finnish team is as deep as any in the tournament up front.

They also have solid goaltending thanks to the play of Mikko Koskinen who has been fundamentally sound and has only allowed eight goals on 136 shots. Defensively, Esa Lindell of the Texas Stars has been outstanding at both ends of the ice while Juuso Hietanen leads the blueliners with four assists. The key to the Finnish defensive play, though, has been their speed and angling to keep shots and players away from Koskinen. The Finns block shots like enjoy it and, when you put it all together, is a large reason why they are the only undefeated team in the tournament still.

In most tournaments, a Canada-Finland match-up would have the Canadians as the favorites. Tomorrow's game will see the Canadians as the underdogs as the two teams battle for gold. Finland has looked impressive throughout the tournament, so it will be a good test for the Canadians if they hope to ruin a bid at history.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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