2019 World Juniors: Finland Edges Americans for Gold

VANCOUVER — Kaapo Kakko capitalized on his golden moment.

A contender to be the first overall pick in this year’s NHL draft and an underager at this tournament, Kakko shovelled in a rebound with 1:26 remaining in regulation to lift Finland over the United States 3-2 in a thrilling gold-medal game at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.

“An incredible feeling, and for sure it’s great to do that,” Kakko said through a translator.

The Americans rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the third period, but Kakko delivered the finishing touch for Finland in front of 17,206 fans at Rogers Arena — the same building that will host the NHL draft in June, when Kakko and American forward Jack Hughes are expected to go 1-2.

Hughes is still the favourite to be selected first, but Kakko’s golden goal will certainly stick in the minds of scouts going forward.

“It’s still so much time to the draft, so we’ll see what happens,” Kakko said when asked if he’s now No. 1. “I’m just trying to enjoy it and play the games for Finland.”

Not as brash as fellow Finn Patrik Laine and more comparable in his skill-set to Auston Matthews, who went ahead of Laine in their 1-2 battle for the 2016 draft. Kakko wasn’t going to pump his own tires, but his teammates were pumped to see him score the winner.

“I can’t think of a better guy to score that goal than Kaapo. He deserved it. He played an awesome tournament,” said Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who was named the All-Star goaltender after stopping 26 shots in the final.

Kakko’s coach, Jussi Ahokas, showed a lot of faith in the 17-year-old to put him in that situation — to put him on the ice late in a tied game with gold at stake.

“We put in that moment the best guys that we had, and we had even more guys who could have scored that goal, but of course Kakko is a great player,” said Ahokas. “He’ll be for sure the next superstar. That’s the good thing about Finland, we’re producing players like that.”

Hughes also had his chance to be the hero — an opportunity to get that go-ahead goal on a partial breakaway midway through the third period, but Luukkonen shut him down.

“They scored a couple on the five-hole in the first game, so I got my payback now,” said Luukkonen, referencing a 4-1 round-robin loss to the United States on New Year’s Eve, which was one of three games that Hughes missed with an undisclosed injury before returning in a quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic.

Jack Hughes Team USA U-18
(Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Jack Hughes is a special talent with a bright future, but on this night he got outshone or at least upstaged by his draft rival Kaapo Kakko.

“Looking back on it in the future, it’ll probably be good memories, but right now it just sucks that we lost,” said a sombre Hughes, who had just come off that emotional roller-coaster of a third period.

“There was a lot of life on the bench and I thought we were rolling (after tying the game 2-2). I thought we had a really good chance, but it’s hockey,” he said. “The tournament was a lot of fun, a lot of fun with our team, just not the way we wanted it to end. It’s sad, we would have loved to win.”

Instead, it was Kakko, Luukkonen and the rest of the Finns sporting the biggest smiles in all of Vancouver on Saturday night.

“Same as in the Canada game (2-1 overtime win in the quarterfinals), we just fought until the end and we got the result that we wanted,” said Luukkonen, who redeemed himself from a forgettable performance at last year’s World Juniors in Buffalo. “It makes it even better after the disappointment at last year’s tournament. To bounce back like this, it’s just unbelievable.”

Finland bench celebrates gold
(Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
Team Finland, including captain Aarne Talvitie (25), pours off the bench to celebrate their gold-medal triumph over the United States.

Here is a detailed recap from the final day of the World Juniors, including Russia’s bronze-medal win over Switzerland that took place earlier Saturday.

Finland 3, United States 2

Goaltending was the story of a scoreless first period and much of the game, with Cayden Primeau stopping all 13 shots he faced for the Americans in the opening frame — with two of his best saves coming off Anton Lundell and Aleksi Heponiemi — while Luukkonen stopped Alexander Chmelevski multiple times on prime scoring chances among his nine stops through 20 minutes.

There was a goal in the first period, Oliver Wahlstrom on a power play at 9:45, but it was quickly waved off by the ref — and rightly so, since Chmelevski had clearly entered the crease prior to Wahlstrom firing in a rebound chance. In the NHL, it would have been a good goal because Chmelevski didn’t interfere with Luukkonen and had exited the crease before the puck entered the net, but under IIHF rules the play is supposed to be blown dead as soon as an attacking player steps foot in the crease. Thus, no goal.

The goaltenders continued to shine in the second period, both making eight more saves, but Finland finally broke through for the game’s first goal that counted when Jesse Ylonen’s one-timer on a power play beat Primeau to the glove side at 11:31 of the middle stanza.

At the other end, the Americans were struggling to convert their man-advantage chances — going 0-for-5 on the power play in the championship game. Their best chance of the second period did come on a power play when Ryan Poehling released a spin-around shot from the slot on a feed from Jack Hughes, but Luukkonen came up huge again.

Finland forged ahead 2-0 six minutes into the third period when Otto Latvala’s point shot found its way past a screened Primeau, sparking an emphatic celebration from the big Finnish blueliner who is better known for his defence than his offence.

That also sparked the Americans, though, and they returned fire just over a minute later — 61 seconds later, to be exact — when Chmelevski finished off a scoring chance that he started by setting up Jack Hughes, whose shot was blocked but Chmelevski fired in the rebound before Luukkonen could get back to his post.

Less than two minutes later, at 8:47, the gold-medal game was suddenly tied — when Josh Norris buried a beautiful feed from Chmelevski, who was by far the Americans’ top skater in the championship game and arguably the best player on either team.

Momentum appeared to be firmly on the Americans’ side with overtime looming until Kakko stole the show with his winning goal. Naturally, he was named Finland’s player of the game after netting just his second of the tournament — and fifth point over seven games.

Kakko played a regular shift on Finland’s second line throughout the tournament and also saw plenty of power-play time as a go-to guy despite being one of the younger players in this primarily 19-year-old showcase.

“He’s a great player, but we let him play,” said Ahokas. “He had the confidence and we gave him the role.”

Hughes, by comparison, finished with four assists in four games. He didn’t score a goal at the World Juniors but was playing through an injury in the medal round. Hughes was on the top power-play unit for those last three games but played further down the depth chart at even strength once Poehling, the tournament MVP, established himself as the top-line centre for Team USA with a natural hat trick against Sweden when Hughes was out of the lineup.

“We had a lot of heart . . . but some things in life don’t go your way,” Poehling said of settling for silver. “I’m proud of the group and what we accomplished.”

Russia 5, Switzerland 2

Russia, who many still feel were the best overall team here with the belief that they would have beat any other nation in a best-of-seven series, overwhelmed Switzerland early and held on late to win bronze in an entertaining third-place game.

“Not bad, not bad finish for a big tournament,” Russian captain Klim Kostin said through a translator, adding the team regrouped from their hard-fought 2-1 defeat to the United States in Friday’s semifinal. “There was a conversation between players and they decided to take the bronze medal.”

“It always feels pretty good when you win your last game,” added Russian defenceman Dmitri Samorukov. “It’s pretty special.”

Swiss goaltender Lucas Hollenstein was under siege from the outset and rebounded well from getting pulled in the semifinal — when he surrendered four goals on eight shots to Finland in what became a 6-1 blowout. Against Russia, Hollenstein made a handful of good saves in the first half of the first period, including robbing Grigori Denisenko on his own rebound chance, as Russia built up a 10-1 advantage in shots at the midway mark of the opening frame.

By then, it was already 1-0 after Kirill Slepets tucked a nifty deke between Hollenstein’s legs from the side of the crease to open the scoring for Russia at 4:25.

Switzerland got their first real chance on a power play — where they had proven potent in this tournament, especially Philipp Kurashev with four man-advantage markers — but Russian goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov kicked out his right pad to stop Sven Leuenberger’s one-timer from the slot.

Shortly after killing off that penalty, Russia went back on the attack and Nikita Shashkov snapped a shot past Hollenstein’s blocker on the rush to make it 2-0 at 13:44. Vasili Podkolzin, another potential top-five pick in the 2019 NHL draft, sprung Shashkov for that goal.

Switzerland’s best chance of the first period came in the final minute when a terrible turnover handed Kurashev the puck all alone in the slot, but Kochetkov executed a poke-check to keep it a two-goal lead through 20 minutes.

The second period was much more competitive throughout, with Switzerland outplaying Russia and outshooting them 13-9 in the middle frame — led by the line of Valentin Nussbaumer, Yannick Bruschweiler and Justin Sigrist.

Nussbaumer, also a 2019 draft-eligible prospect and possible first-round candidate, got Switzerland on the board at 4:54 by burying the rebound of Simon le Coultre’s point shot.

That goal gave the Swiss all kinds of life and energized the crowd, which was clearly rooting for the underdogs with chants of ‘Let’s Go Switzerland’.

That line came close to netting the equalizer on their very next shift, but Kostin silenced the fans momentarily by making it 3-1 at 12:53. The Swiss defence was guilty of backing in too far, giving Kostin all the time in the world from the slot and he made no mistake in sniping high-blocker on Hollenstein for what stood up as the winner.

“He’s a leader who wants to win. He’s a good captain, he’s doing his job, trying to motivate guys too,” Samorukov said of Kostin, who had an emotional outburst following their semifinal loss. “No one likes to lose, right? It’s just a tough situation when kind of all the fans (are) against us.”

Kostin’s goal did little to stall Switzerland’s momentum, and that same line kept on buzzing and creating chances until Bruschweiler capped off an incredible sequence by batting the puck out of mid-air to get Switzerland back within one at 15:36.

Bruschweiler showed great eye-hand coordination for the goal that followed a series of stellar stops by Kochetkov, including a scorpion-style skate save to deny a rebound opportunity. Kochetkov channelled his inner Andrei Vasilevskiy for that one, but Switzerland’s sticktoitiveness got rewarded during the ensuing scramble.

Switzerland pushed hard for the tying goal to start the third period, but Kochetkov came up with a couple more clutch saves to keep Russia ahead 3-2. He stopped Bruschweiler on a rebound chance at 3:38 and turned aside Sandro Schmid during a Switzerland power play after Nussbaumer’s cross-ice pass gave Schmid a quality opportunity from the right circle.

Switzerland was outshooting Russia 26-21 at that point — 7-0 in the third period — but they couldn’t convert on that man advantage, and Slepets exploded to score his second of the game shortly thereafter. He pulled away from the Swiss defence and went backhand five-hole on Hollenstein — a similar deke to his first goal, but this breakaway move was even better and every bit as important in making it 4-2 at 6:33 of the third period.

Switzerland had two more power plays — including a four-minute advantage when Pavel Shen took a double minor for high-sticking before Kostin was called for tripping at the 16-minute mark — but Slepets completed his hat trick with a shorthanded empty-net goal with 2:01 remaining in regulation. Again, he used his speed in winning a race to a loose puck and fired in the 5-2 goal that secured bronze for Russia.

“He’s pretty quick, I didn’t know that,” Samorukov said of Slepets. “We talk about (how) he can score 1-on-1 with goalie, but today he scored twice. He made it for us, so everyone happy.”

Switzerland finished an impressive fourth at the World Juniors, putting forth a valiant effort in outshooting Russia 36-24 overall, including 17-3 in the third period.

“Probably in two or three days, it means a lot,” said Swiss captain Nando Eggenberger. “It would have been better in third place, we all wanted that.”

Still, fourth place is no reason to hang their heads and it will give Switzerland plenty to build on for the 2020 tournament in the Czech Republic, with Nussbaumer among those eligible to return.

“They have a lot of confidence now. They know that Switzerland is a very good team, and I think they can also reach the semifinals next year,” said Eggenberger, who has now graduated from the under-20 level after representing Switzerland three times at the World Juniors — twice as their captain.