Yes, Puistola ranks second in tournament scoring (4+3=7 in 3 games) behind the U.S.’s Trevor Zegras, and boasts the top points-per-game average (2.33) prior to New Year’s Eve action. Still, even after scoring two goals and an assist in Finland’s 7-1 victory over Kazakhstan, the Tappara Tampere product wasn’t going to hand out celebratory cigars.
“We weren’t on the level we wanted to be on,” Puistola said. “Rough start for us. We took too many penalties. We were a little bit lazy and didn’t work hard. But as the game went on, we got better and better all the time. It was an OK game from us today.”
Head coach Raimo Helminen is pleased with what he’s seen from the 183-cm, 80-kg forward so far: “He’s pretty good around the net. That’s what I like about him. He’s not a big guy, but he’s pretty strong close to the net.”
In other words, Puistola has hockey’s version of the Midas touch: everything he touches turns to goals.
If the Finns are to repeat as World Junior champions for the first time ever, Helminen will need Puistola and his linemates to stay on a roll. Nifty playmaker Kristian Tanus, who shone on Finland’s 2018 U18 Worlds gold-medal team in Russia, is second in team scoring (2+4=6). Fellow World Junior rookie Joonas Oden (1+3=4) chipped in the back-breaking 3-0 power-play goal in the 8-1 win over Slovakia.
“It’s very fun,” Puistola said. “Both are good skaters, and Tanus is such a good passer. So it’s easy to stay on the back door. He just passes the puck to me and I can put in those goals.”
Puistola has cited Patrick Kane and Nikita Kucherov as his NHL role models. Yet naturally, when you think of goal-scorers from Tampere, the first name that comes to mind nowadays is Patrik Laine. How well does Puistola know the 21-year-old Winnipeg Jets star?
“A little bit. Not that well. Sometimes when I see him in Tampere, I might chat with him. But nothing more than that.”
Although Puistola might find himself teaming up with Laine at an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship someday, he’s definitely looking forward to playing with some other high-profile Finns: Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Carolina drafted Puistola in the third round (73rd overall) this year after he scored five goals in five games at the U18 Worlds in Sweden. So far, it looks like GM Don Waddell has landed a gem.
Puistola’s father Pasi never suited up in the NHL, but the now-retired 41-year-old defenceman could serve as an IIHF role model, even though his son fills a very different role.
With the national team, Pasi Puistola had a knack for coming through in crucial moments. Take the 1998 World Juniors in Helsinki.
He stumbled in Finland’s first game, handing away the puck to Jason Ward for Canada’s opening breakaway goal. Yet the Finns bounced back to win 3-2. And when they trailed Russia 1-0 in the third period of the gold medal game, Pasi Puistola scored the equalizer, setting the stage for Niklas Hagman’s unforgettable overtime winner.
In the low-key Finnish tradition, Puistola said he hadn’t seen a video of his father’s ‘98 heroics and added: “He hasn’t told me so much about it. He just says to me: ‘Play well and work hard. Play as well as you can.’”
The elder Puistola, who’s now Tappara’s video coach, also played for the 2011 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold-medal team in Bratislava. It was his slap shot that captain Mikko Koivu tipped in for Finland’s first goal in a 3-2 shootout win over Russia in the group stage. That gave the Finns a quarter-final matchup with Norway instead of Canada.
Patrik Puistola was 10 when he watched Finland thump Sweden 6-1 in the final, and he cherishes that memory: “I watched the game with my family at home and I was really happy when they won.”
However, now it’s time to start carving out his own turf. Puistola had a slow start to 2019/20 with just one assist in 15 games with Tappara.
After being loaned to Jukurit Mikkeli, his pace picked up with three goals and two assists in seven games. There were concerns that he’d miss the World Juniors after being bloodied on a brutal hit by Ilves Tampere assistant captain Panu Mieho on 3 December, but thankfully, he recovered in time to star in Trinec.
The Finns haven’t won anything yet, and if they’re not careful, Switzerland, their final preliminary-round opponent on New Year’s Eve, could slip past them in the Group A standings. The Swiss finished fourth last year, and they’re coming off a 7-2 thrashing of Slovakia on Monday.
Puistola gave his no-nonsense preview: “I think it will be a really hard game. They have good guys there. We have to play much better. It will prepare us for the next games.”
There is confidence throughout the Finnish program. In 2019, the Finns punched above their weight in international hockey. They won the World Juniors in Vancouver and the men’s Worlds in Bratislava, and achieved an historic silver medal at the Women’s Worlds in Espoo.
In 2020, Puistola and his teammates would love to help Finland establish a monopoly on gold. Let’s see if “Park Place” becomes an even more valuable property.