Expect the unexpected in SWE-FIN final
With all due respect to the junior programs in these Nordic nations, the likelihood of both of them making the gold medal game this year looked dim. One? Perhaps. Both? No way.
But it’s happened. And even the players involved admit they didn’t see this coming.
“The U.S. were the favorites before the tournament,” said Sweden’s Lias Andersson of the host nation, which had won six of the last seven U18 gold medals before losing 4-2 to Finland in Saturday’s first semi-final. “It’s a little bit surprising, but Finland’s a really good team. We’ll just take what we get and go hard against the Finns.”
The Swedish U20 team ended a 31-year gold drought at the 2012 World Juniors in Calgary on Mika Zibanejad’s 1-0 overtime winner against Russia. For the U18 Swedes, beating Finland for gold in Grand Forks would be similarly meaningful. They’ve never won this tournament since its 1999 inception.
Finland hasn’t won the U18 since taking back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000. After a 2-1 overtime loss to the Americans in last year’s final, it would be extra-sweet for returnees from 2015 like Jesse Puljujarvi, Robin Salo, Markus Niemelainen and Juuso Valimaki to claim the gold on U.S. ice.
Of course, Valimaki, who was named Finland’s captain for this tournament, would ideally like to feel well enough to hit the ice for such a triumph. The fact that he and Leevi Laakso, Finland’s starting goalie in all four group games, didn’t even play in the semi-final versus the U.S. due to illness made it all the more impressive for coach Jussi Ahokas’s group.
“It’s about our team,” said goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, the 17-year-old from HPK Hameenlinna who has played in all the elimination games. “We’re good as a team.”
Certainly, the Finns put together a better all-around effort against the U.S. than Sweden did against Canada. The four goals Finland scored in the semi-final were as many as the Americans had allowed previously in the entire tournament. They took away time and space from stars like Clayton Keller and Kailer Yamamoto like no other team had. They dictated the play.
“It was our game plan,” said Aapeli Rasanen, who scored twice against the U.S., including the last-minute winner. “We went with it and that’s the result.”
Meanwhile, the Swedes battled hard, but couldn’t hold on to leads of 4-2 and 5-3 in the third period against powerful Canada. Outshot by a whopping 59-35 margin, Sweden could easily have lost if it weren’t for the heroics of goalie Filip Gustavsson.
Gustavsson said his team is confident heading into the final: “It’s just really a good feeling. We know we can beat them. I think we have a really good chance to win that game.”
Sweden has scored 31 goals so far to Finland’s 21, and its power play is clicking at 33.3 percent, while Finland’s is only at 22.7 percent. But you can probably throw those overall statistics out the window when it comes to this Nordic showdown.
Why? Remember the Puljujarvi factor. In the two games the towering 17-year-old Karpat Oulu forward has played in Grand Forks since his club was eliminated from the Liiga playoffs, he’s gotten four points, and three of them came on the power play. Puljujarvi is looking like the gold medal-winning 2016 World Junior MVP he is.
His presence hasn’t gone unnoticed by Swedish coach Torgny Bendelin.
“Every time we play them, it’s really tough,” said Bendelin. “It’s tight. Two months ago, they beat us in penalty shots. But we never played them when Puljujarvi’s been in the lineup. He’s always playing with the U20 team. So they have a better lineup now. It’s going to be tough but fun.”
Historically, Sweden holds the edge over Finland at this tournament. The last time these two nations played at the U18, the Swedes walloped their traditional rivals 10-0 in the quarter-finals on April 24, 2014. In fact, Finland hasn’t beaten Sweden in U18 play since 2006. The overall Swedish record against the Finns stands at five wins, two ties, and three losses.
Yet if presented with these statistics, Finnish go-to guys like Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen would probably give an appropriate response like, “Blah blah, history, who cares?” They’re more interested in making sure they outwork and outscore their counterparts like Alexander Nylander and Tim Wahlgren.
Which team will ride high on the inspiration from its surprising victory over a North American power? Which team will turn out to have expended too much emotional energy in the semi-final? Stay tuned.
This gold medal game is too close to call. We’d advise not betting your life savings on it.
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