VANCOUVER — Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen had a tournament to forget in Buffalo at last year’s World Juniors.
He’s having a tournament to remember here in B.C., backstopping Finland into the semifinals with a shot at a medal and a chance to be named the top goaltender for the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship.
What a difference a year has made for Luukkonen, who decided to come overseas this season and has also been a standout for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves.
Shining on the international stage has been huge for the 6-foot-5 netminder, rebounding from a relatively poor performance in Buffalo in front of the fan base for the NHL team that drafted him — as a second-round selection for the Sabres, 54th overall in 2017.
He started all five games for Finland there, posting an .879 save percentage and 3.13 goals-against average as his country went 2-2 in the round robin before falling 4-3 to the Czech Republic in a shootout to bow out in the quarterfinals.
There was a sense of redemption for Luukkonen after eliminating Canada in Wednesday’s quarterfinals, stopping a penalty shot in overtime as part of a 24-save effort in a 2-1 triumph that saw him outduel fellow OHLer Michael DiPietro of the Ottawa 67’s.
“It’s unbelievable,” Luukkonen said of defeating Canada in that fashion, having previously stood tall against Sweden, the United States and Slovakia. “I think I needed it for myself too, to prove to myself and to prove to everyone else that I can play on this level and play under pressure.
“This gives you a lot of confidence,” he added.
Through four games, including three-robin starts in Victoria, Luukkonen is rocking a .932 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average heading into Friday’s semifinal against Switzerland, with the winner facing either Russia or the United States for gold on Saturday.
Russia (4-0), the Group A winner who routed Slovakia 8-3 in the quarters, will take on the United States (3-0-1), the Group B runner-up who got past the Czech Republic 3-1 to reach the semis. That game goes at 1 p.m. PT, followed at 5 p.m. by Finland (2-2) against Switzerland (1-2-1), who stunned Group B winner Sweden 2-0 in the other quarterfinal from Victoria.
Team USA will be playing in Vancouver for the first time, with this city hosting the remainder of the tournament — both semifinals and both medal games.
Russia has played all five of their games here, defeating Denmark 4-0, Switzerland 7-4, and the Czech Republic and Canada by 2-1 scores before cruising past Slovakia.
The United States, who played three games without injured top-line centre Jack Hughes before getting him back against the Czechs, previously beat Finland 4-1, Slovakia 2-1 and Kazakhstan 8-2, with their lone loss coming against Sweden — a 5-4 overtime defeat that saw a dramatic comeback fall short. The Americans were trailing 4-0 with 10 minutes to go in the third period of that game but rallied to force overtime thanks to two last-minute goals from Ryan Poehling as part of his natural hat trick.
Hughes wasn’t in the lineup against Sweden or against Finland for a New Year’s Eve game that was supposed to showcase the top two prospects for the 2019 NHL draft in Hughes and Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko. That showdown could still come to fruition in the championship game or perhaps for bronze — depending on their semifinal outcomes.
Switzerland, now the underdog darlings of this tournament with their media sensation coach Christian Wohlwend, have played everybody tough in sticking to their systems throughout.
The Swiss are powered by Philipp Kurashev, who had a hat trick in a 4-0 win over Denmark and both goals in a 3-2 loss to Canada, and backstopped by Luca Hollenstein, whose heroic 41-save shutout of Sweden came after blanking the Danes with 21 saves in the round robin.
Luukkonen and the Finns will be favourites in that semifinal matchup despite similar results from the round robin. Finland lost 2-1 to Sweden and 4-1 to the U.S., but prevailed 5-1 over Slovakia and 5-0 over Kazakhstan with backup goalie Filip Lindberg getting that shutout.
Luukkonen has been Finland’s go-to guy and he delivered in the biggest moment of his career to date — stoning Canadian captain Max Comtois on that aforementioned penalty shot just 1:14 into overtime.
“I had no idea what he was going to do, but I played it like a shot and got the stop to help us get the win,” said Luukkonen, whose right pad denied Comtois’ blocker-side shot for the game-saver.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) January 3, 2019
And what a win it was — for Luukkonen and for Finland, which hasn’t medalled at the World Juniors the past two years but could now be celebrating gold in two days.