For the third time in the last five years, it was Tampere Tappara and Karpat Oulu that met in the Finnish Liiga final. Karpat has won eight titles since 2000, most of all teams in the league, while Tappara advanced to the final for the sixth year in a row. To call the 2018 final anything but a clash of the titans would be an understatement.
Of the three finals between Karpat and Tappara since 2014, Karpat won all three.
Including the 2018 final in which they beat Tappara in six games. Goaltender Veini Vehvilainen recorded his third shutout of the playoffs, and the second of the final series, as Karpat won Game 6 1-0. Defenseman Aleksi Makela scored the lone goal of the game.
“It can’t get much better, it was a fantastic game by the entire team. The season’s been one big maturation process for the team,” said Vehvilainen who had to do even more maturing than the others after his father passed away during the season.
While Tappara was the unanimous favourite to win the title in the fall, it was Karpat that won the regular season title, somewhat surprisingly. Tappara finished third, behind TPS Turku.
In the first round, Tappara beat Kuopio KalPa in six games, while Karpat beat Assat Pori in five. In the semi-final, Tappara swept Turku while Karpat went the distance with IFK Helsinki, in a seven-game series that included three games that went into overtime.
Maybe it was the wait that had made Tappara lose their edge, or maybe Karpat had just got the ball rolling in a way that couldn’t be stopped, but the Oulu team jumped to a 3-0 lead in the series. Tappara won Game 4 at home and a wild Game 5 in which Karpat rallied back from 0-4 only to see Tappara captain Jukka Peltola score the game-winner with 2:52 remaining in the third period.
When the series returned to Tampere, Karpat played a perfect game, shut down Tappara and in a storybook fashion, it was Aleksi Makela, a defenceman who had returned to the line-up for Game 5 after a February knee surgery, who scored the game-winning goal.
“Everything happened really fast. It doesn’t matter who scored the goal, it just happened to be me this time,” said Makela, who celebrated the goal with a classic glide on his knees.
“He’s part of our story. We were told that the knee surgery in February would end his season. Two weeks ago, he was working out in a swimming pool, and now he scored a huge goal,” said coach Manner, a man with a soft-spoken and humble leadership style.
Makela said his goal with the rehab was to make sure he’d be ready to start the season in the fall.
“The team must be bigger that the individuals’ egos. Every team always has important players with big egos, but the team is what matters,” Manner went on.
All good teams need the individual talent, and besides Vehvilainen, Manner leaned heavily on team captain, defenceman Lasse Kukkonen, and his first line centre Julius Junttila, who received the Jari Kurri Award as the playoffs MVP. He led the league in playoff scoring with 8+6=14 points in 18 games.
Manner dedicated the championship to Vehvilainen, goaltending coach Ari Hilli, and assistant coach Toni Sihvonen.
“We’ve had long talks about life and there have been moments when Veini has said that he may not have the energy to play the next day, but I think being on the ice has helped him deal with the grief,” Hilli told Finnish Yle.
“No matter what, we wanted to take care of each other, and maybe that showed on the ice as well,” said Karpat captain Lasse Kukkonen, who also announced his retirement from the national team.
On Thursday night, Kukkonen received the Canada Bowl from the league CEO, and he invited Vehvilainen to hoist it with him. They lifted it high above their heads towards the Hakametsa arena ceiling before the rest of the team surrounded them. It was time to celebrate.