HELSINKI – It’s fair to assume that had the Minnesota Wild not made the playoffs, and had Finland head coach Jukka Jalonen had Mikko Koivu available, we wouldn’t have seen the emergence of Petri Kontiola that we’ve witnessed in Helsinki.
While Kontiola is playing in his fourth World Championship, he’s often been cast behind the top lines, working his craft just outside the spotlight. Last year, he was behind Mikko Koivu, Jarkko Immonen, and Niko Kapanen, and outside the two top power play units.
He missed the 2011 tournament due to an injury, and in the 2010 tournament he scored three goals in seven games. This year, Kontiola has 12 points in seven games, and is second in tournament scoring, just one point behind Russia’s Ilya Kovalchuk.
“We all have played enough hockey to know what to do out there. We just have to take it one game at a time, and see how it goes,” Kontiola said before the tournament.
And after the first game against Germany, in which he scored a highlight reel goal when he took down Janne Pesonen’s pass from mid-air, then beat Germany’s goaltender Rob Zepp.
He’s talked about focus, and the next game, and trying to get better, and playing better after each game. He jokes about his own goals, and he downplays his own success.
He's in the zone.
Kontiola was the Chicago Blackhawks’ seventh-round pick in 2004, and he spent two years in their organization, but signed with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in 2009 - where he played with his Team Finland linemate Juhamatti Aaltonen in 2010 - and recently finished his second season with the Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL.
He led the team in scoring, and has already signed an extension to stay in Chelyabinsk.
Players in this tournament had repeated game after game that any team can beat any team in one game. The teams are close, and everybody knows how to play, that if everything goes one team’s way, even a lower-ranked team can beat the world champions.
Same goes for the players. With no Koivu on the team, nor Immonen for that matter, Kontiola has been de facto first-line centre since day one. Last year, his spot on the team was a little unsure until the tournament began, this year coach Jalonen gave him time off from the last preparation tournament so he’d be in shape when the tournament began.
Finland has scored 23 goals in the tournament, Kontiola has scored six of them, and assisted another six. His line has scored 13 goals in the tournament.
Kontiola has responded well to his new role as the first-line centre. Sometimes good players use opportunities like this to take their game to another level and stay there, and sometimes the stars just align themselves perfectly for them.
In 1992, Finland entered the tournament with a team that had little experience, and no expectations. Young Teemu Selänne - who did play in the Olympics the same year - had declined to play in the tournament, and an 18-year-old Jere Lehtinen made the team, without having ever played in the Finnish elite league.
And then there was Jarkko Varvio, 20, who had won the goal scoring title in the World Juniors just months before the World Championship, and whose shots kept on finding the back of the net in Prague, as well.
Varvio scored nine goals (and added an assist) in eight games, led the tournament in goal scoring, and was voted into the tournament All-Star by the media.
On that 1992 team, Finland also had Hannu Järvenpää, had won the tournament goal scoring with nine goals in 1985, in his first World Championship.
"[Kontiola] has always had moves like that, but it’s great to see [his line] play that well here,” said Tuukka Mäntylä, Kontiola’s former teammate, earlier in the tournament.
Kontiola has always had the moves, and now is his time.
“Let’s just be quiet so we can catch some fish,” Kontiola said after his second game in the tournament, wanting to keep a low profile.
He’s looking for a big one tonight.