A new golden age
by Lucas Aykroyd|05 JAN 2019
After the U.S. defeated Finland 4-1 on New Year's Eve in group play, the two rivals are set to cross swords again in the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship gold medal game.
photo: Minas Panagiotakis / HHOF-IIHF Images
From 1993 to 1997, Canada won five straight World Junior gold medals. The motherland of hockey repeated that record-setting feat from 2005 to 2009. But the narrative has changed.

Look at our finalists. In the 2010's, the Americans have three gold medals (2010, 2013, 2017), and the Finns have two (2014, 2016), just like Canada (2015, 2018).

Welcome to the new World Junior hockey order, where no one wins back-to-back titles anymore.

For years, the U.S. has been rising as Canada’s main rival for supplying NHL prospects, rolling them out like cars on a classic Detroit assembly line. Fifty-two Americans were taken in the 2018 NHL Draft, including six first-round picks. Four of them are here in Vancouver: Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks), Oliver Wahlstrom (New York Islanders), Joel Farabee (Philadelphia Flyers), and K’Andre Miller (New York Rangers).

Yet considering the Finns have a population of just 5.5 million, compared to the U.S.’s 325 million, they’re on an even more amazing roll. In 2017, the Finns also had six first-rounders. Three of them will suit up on Saturday night at Rogers Arena: Urho Vaakanainen (Boston Bruins), Henri Jokiharju (Chicago Blackhawks), and Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville Predators).

Of course, that’s just a small, selective snapshot. But it illustrates why Finnish coach Jussi Ahokas and his players feel they can send USA Hockey home with silver medals. 

“I don’t consider us an underdog,” said Aleksi Heponiemi, who is tied for the tournament scoring lead with eight points. “I think we’re a really good team this year. We always are. I’m really expecting us to beat them tomorrow.”

Both starting goalies are standing tall, literally and figuratively. If the Finns are thrilled with how Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen shone in their 2-1 quarter-final win over Canada and 6-1 semi-final win over Switzerland, the Americans are equally happy with how Cayden Primeau stepped up in their 3-1 quarter-final win over the Czech Republic and 2-1 semi-final win over Russia.

“He’s been unbelievable,” said U.S. defenceman Phil Kemp. “He’s a calming presence, and we have a lot of confidence in him. Coach [Mike Hastings] preaches on protecting the house, keeping them to the outside, playing inside the dots, and forcing bad shots, because we know Primeau’s going to make those saves.”

The Finns have shone defensively all tournament long, allowing just nine goals. Why wouldn’t they with two NHL blueliners in Vaakanainen and Jokiharju? But in the preliminary round, they only mustered one goal in both their tournament-opening loss to Sweden (2-1) and their New Year’s Eve downfall against the Americans (4-1). Only against the Swiss did they truly kick it into gear.

“It was a tough start,” said Tolvanen, a 2018 Olympic all-star who also broke Yevgeni Kuznetsov's KHL goals and points records for an 18-year-old. “Nobody believed in us. As a group, we stuck together. We found a way and just battled through the tough times. The Canada game was really good. Today was good. We're going to be ready tomorrow.”

Even though Saturday marks the first-ever World Junior final between these two nations, Finland’s confidence goes back to how tightly it’s played the Americans at four consecutive IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championships. At that level, this is already a full-fledged rivalry.

In 2015, Colin White’s overtime goal gave the U.S. a 2-1 gold-medal win in Zug, Switzerland, despite Finnish goalie Veini Vehvilainen’s spectacular 60-save performance. In 2016, the Finns got their revenge in Grand Forks, North Dakota, beating the U.S. 4-2 in the semi-final on Aapeli Rasanen’s last-minute goal and then pounding Sweden 6-1 in the final.

In 2017, the Americans turned the table with a 4-2 gold-medal win over Finland in Poprad, Slovakia, led by Joel Farabee’s two goals. And in 2018, the Toni Utunen-captained Finns downed the U.S. 3-2 in Chelyabinsk, Russia on Niklas Nordgren’s third-period winner.

“I think there is a little bit more [rivalry] nowadays because we have met so many times,” Luukkonen said. “We know a lot of the guys. So there is a little bit more tension than normally in those games.”

Apart from their wild 5-4 overtime loss to Sweden, the Americans have played tight defensive hockey in Victoria and Vancouver, led by captain Mikey Anderson (2-3-5). But coach Mike Hastings has also gotten scoring from a wide range of forwards while Ahokas was still waiting for Tolvanen, Rasmus Kupari, Kaapo Kakko and others to start producing.

Ryan Poehling has played a mature game and has eight points (5-3-8), contending with Heponiemi and others for the tournament scoring title. Jason Robertson (1-6-7) has filled the role of playmaker superbly, including setting up Josh Norris’s winner versus the Czechs. Farabee, Wahlstrom, Tyler Madden, Alexander Chmelevski...there’s no one the Finns can just disregard.

“They play fast and hard hockey,” said Luukkonen. “They have really skilled guys. For sure there is no way we can take too many penalties tomorrow.”

Indeed, special teams could be America’s trump card. The U.S. boasts the tournament’s top power play (31.8 percent) and penalty kill (92.3 percent), while Finland’s PP is eighth (18.8 percent) and its PK is seventh (77.2 percent). Those are big gaps.

And we haven’t even talked about how Jack Hughes, who missed the last three games of the preliminary round due to injury, is still only scraping the surface of his capabilities as the top 2019 draft-eligible forward. His famous chemistry with his older brother Quinn on defence has been seen in flashes. He’s got three assists, mostly recently setting up Chmelevski’s game-winner versus Russia.

“I feel like I can pop to another level,” said Jack Hughes. “I just played my third game of the tourney. We'll see how I do tomorrow, but I feel confident in myself right now.”

Kakko, who could go second overall after Hughes, has continued to pick up his game (1-3-4). But captain Aarne Talvitie has been Finland’s most reliable attacker, with at least one point in every game so far (4-3-7).

The stocky centre is clear on how Finland needs to improve compared to its New Year’s Eve loss: “We have to get to the prime scoring chances more. We have to get in front of the net more, shoot the puck more, and be more active. The beginning of the game against the USA wasn’t what we hoped fo,r and they were very effective with their scoring. We’re going to make sure that with the chances we have, we score goals.”

And that’s what it might come down to. At this tournament, the Finns still haven’t conclusively proved that they can score on “Big Five” nations. Thumping Switzerland was nice, but also just plain necessary. If the Finns can unleash their offensive potential on Saturday, they can win gold. This should be a hard-fought gold medal game, but logically, it’s hard to see Finland hoisting the trophy without, for instance, a single goal from Tolvanen.

Then again, who said logic applies to a modern World Junior final? It’s not like the good old days for Canadian fans when their unstoppable teams won gold medal games by four or five goals. It’s time to plunge into the unknown and welcome a new champion.