Kaapo Kakko scored the winner with 1:26 left as Finland edged the U.S. 3-2 in the 2019 World Junior gold medal game on Saturday night. It was another electrifying moment in this tournament's storied history.
Anton Lundell won the draw in the U.S. zone and defenceman Henri Jokiharju got the puck at the blue line. Lundell couldn't bang in the rebound from Jokiharju's shot, but Kakko backhanded it past the outstretched right pad of U.S. goalie Cayden Primeau.
"I can't think of a better guy to score that goal than Kaapo," said Finnish goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who was named to the tournament all-star team. "He deserved it. He played an awesome tournament."
"He's an unbelievable player," said defenceman Oskari Laaksonen. "He showed today that he's a guy of big games, and he loves to play in the big games. It's great."
Jesse Ylonen and Otto Latvala had Finland's other goals.
Alexander Chmelevski had a goal and an assist and Josh Norris also scored for the Americans, who came back from a 2-0 third-period deficit. Noah Cates added two assists, and 17-year-old phenom Jack Hughes, the top-rated 2019 NHL Draft prospect, had one assist, matching his output in his previous three games.
"Hockey's a game of mistakes, I guess, and they capitalized on the ones we made," said Ryan Poehling, who was named tournament MVP. "We couldn't on the ones they did. I think that was the difference in the game today."
"Looking back on it in the future, it'll probably be good memories," said Jack Hughes. "But right now, it just sucks that we lost. I would have liked to do it differently."
However, this night will be remembered for the big goal by 17-year-old Kakko, who is projected to be drafted after Hughes. It was his second goal of these World Juniors.
It's the third gold medal in six years and fifth in tournament history for Finland, one more than the Americans. The Finns previously triumphed in 1987, 1998, 2014, and 2016. Winning is becoming a habit now.
"We don’t think of ourselves as underdogs, never," said Finnish coach Jussi Ahokas."But the big thing was for us to win in the small rink. We haven’t done that before and now we’ve done that also. That’s the big thing for Finnish hockey. I think we’re producing better players than in the past."
Despite the loss, the silver-medal Americans extended their World Junior medal streak to four straight years. They won bronze in 2016 and 2018 and gold in 2017.
"It's hard to do," admitted Primeau. "So obviously they take pride in it with USA Hockey. Obviously silver isn't what we wanted today, but we can look back on it with honour and pride."
With five U.S. returnees and seven Finnish returnees from last year, there was no shortage of motivation. The gold medal game was played at a high tempo befitting two of the tournament’s best skating teams.
In a scoreless first period, the Finns outshot their opponents 13-9, but the story was the high-quality chances around Luukkonen’s net.
The U.S. got the first power play when a forechecking Rasmus Kupari caught Josh Norris with an elbow in the corner midway through the opening frame. The Americans thought they’d opened the scoring at 9:45. Luukkonen deflected Poehling’s shot off the glass and it bounced out in front, enabling Oliver Wahlstrom to fire the loose puck in during a scrum. However, the goal was waved off since Chmelevski was in the crease. Video review validated the on-ice call.
Of the call, U.S. coach Mike Hastings said: "I believe he said our stick was in their goaltender's pad."
On the second U.S. man advantage, the Finnish goalie made a fabulous stick save on Chmelevski at the side of the net. Late in the period, Luukkonen dazzled again after Cockerill raced in, deked around Jokiharju to the outside and centred it from behind the goal line to Chmelevski for a Grade-A chance.
Flirting with danger, the Finns killed off two more second-period U.S. power plays before Evan Barratt was dinged for interfering with Luukkonen. Ylonen opened the scoring for Finland with an absolute howitzer at 11:31, one-timing Laaksonen's feed from just inside the blue line over Primeau's glove. Ylonen got the lone Finnish goal in the 4-1 New Year's Eve loss to the Americans in Victoria.
"We didn't want to overlook them just because of the result we had earlier in the tournament," Primeau said. "But they did the usual where they were just skilled and got pucks to the net and got on some rebounds."
With Teemu Engberg off for tripping up Chmelevski, Sami Moilanen nearly tipped in a glorious shorthanded chance on the rush. Before the penalty expired, Kakko and Lundell failed to finish off a 2-on-1 break.
In the third period, the Finns stayed patient and supported the puck well as the Americans pushed for the equalizer.
At the six-minute mark of the third period, Latvala gave Finland a 2-0 lead when his wrister from near the centre point sailed through traffic and beat Primeau on the stick side.
The Americans stayed resilient. They struck back just 1:01 later on a broken play. Jack Hughes attempted a shot that was blocked by Laaksonen, and the puck squirted to Chmelevski, who scored from a bad angle to Luukkonen's right.
Fired up, the U.S knotted the score at 8:47. Chmelevski grabbed a loose puck in the left faceoff circle and backhanded it to Josh Norris, whose one-timer flew past a sliding Luukkonen.
"I liked our pushback," said Hastings. "I'm sure there were some people who thought that we were close to being six feet under when we were down by two, but we came back and fought."
"This is junior hockey, so everything can happen," said Laaksonen. "They scored two, but then we grabbed the game again."
With 10 minutes left in the third, Luukkonen smartly denied Jack Hughes on a breakaway. With the Americans coming on strong, he foiled Wahlstrom from the slot four minutes later.
"They scored a couple five-hole in the first game, so I got my payback now," said Luukkonen.
Ahokas hailed the 19-year-old Talvitie's conduct: "He came to play and didn’t play, but then he came to the bench in the end and started to cheer the guys and pump them up. I think that tells a lot about character and what a player he is and what a person he is."
Every previous gold medal game in the 2010’s has been decided by no more than two goals, and this tense thriller completed the pattern. Finland is proud to return to the medal podium after a disastrous ninth-place finish in 2017 and an underwhelming sixth-place run in 2018.
"This is unbelievable," said Luukkonen. "It makes it even better after the disappointment of last year's tournament. To bounce back like this, it's just unbelievable."
The result shows how much Finnish hockey has grown since the last time they played for a World Junior medal in Vancouver. In 2006, goalie Tuukka Rask stole the show for the Finns with his quarter-final heroics versus Sweden and bronze medal-winning performance against the Americans. Thirteen years later, Suomi is on top of the world.
"I think you have to give Finland credit for coming out and playing with the bite that they played with," Hastings said. "They were hungry, and that was a very hard-fought game."
This was the first IIHF gold medal game played at Rogers Arena since Sidney Crosby scored the iconic 3-2 overtime winner against the Americans in the 2010 Olympic final. The arena also hosted the 2006 World Junior final, where Canada blanked Russia 5-0.
"I just spoke with the guys about how this is the building where Crosby did that goal," said Kakko. "I'm lucky that I did it."
An added bonus for Vancouver fans was watching three future Canucks prospects in the final. Defenceman Quinn Hughes was a minutes monster (23:58) and forward Tyler Madden also played a big role for the U.S. during the tournament. Finnish defenceman Toni Utunen, who broke Canadian hearts with his 2-1 quarter-final overtime winner against the host team, showed good upside too.
These young men are the future in Vancouver, and with hard work and good fortune, they could become as beloved as Henrik Sedin or Jyrki Lumme, who attended the final and got rousing cheers when they were shown on the big screen.
With this exhilarating tournament in the books, the eyes of U20 hockey fans now turn toward the Czech Republic, where the Finns will aim to defend their title at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ostrava and Trinec.