Finnish Liiga Final: Prospects Lead the Way

On May 4, the Finnish Liiga championship was decided between HPK Hämeenlinna and Kärpät Oulu. The series went to Game 7 and it still took an overtime period to find a winner. In the end, underdogs HPK finished their fairytale season by lifting the trophy in Oulu.

Both teams had a few interesting prospects in their lineup. Due to a low-scoring series, it was mainly the goalies who shone the brightest, but a lot of the young guns held their own in other positions, too. The Hockey Writers put together a summary of eight prospects and their performances in the series.

Orange was fashionable in the away sector as HPK claimed their second ever Liiga title.

Emil Larmi, 22 – Free Agent, Goalie

Emil Larmi was the biggest reason HPK went on to win the championship. The six-foot tall goalie played in an aggressive manner typical to him, making flashy saves and showing a cool head in even the most critical situations. He finished the series with an astounding .946 save percentage, allowing only nine goals in seven games.

The only real weakness Larmi showed was his puck handling ability. The lively and enthusiastic goalie sometimes attempted passes that were either too tough for him to execute or too difficult for defensemen to read. This caused terrifying moments for the fans and even more acrobatic saves for Larmi as he fought himself back in the crease to stop the shots.

Veini Vehviläinen, 22 – Columbus Blue Jackets, Goalie

Kärpät’s Veini Vehviläinen ended up on the losing side, but still played a fantastic series. Compared to Larmi, Vehviläinen is very deliberate in his movement, which makes the two goalies very different in terms of playstyle. Despite being only 6-foot-1, he relies more on positioning to make saves.

Vehviläinen played another spectacular season with Kärpät after winning the championship a season earlier. In the seven-game final series, he posted a .924 SV% and allowed only 11 goals. Some may argue that the overtime goal in Game 7, along with a few others, slipped in too easily, however. Larmi’s incredible play makes judgments painfully unfair for Vehviläinen.

Goalies of both teams were selected “Hottest of the Week” during the final.

Teemu Kivihalme, 23 – Toronto Maple Leafs, Defenseman

Teemu Kivihalme struggled at the beginning of the series, making bad decisions and missing easy passes in Kärpät’s own zone. His playtime dipped significantly in Game 3, but after that the offensive defenseman began finding his own game along with the rest of the team. Kivihalme finished the final with one goal, one assist and a plus-one rating.

Kivihalme’s biggest asset is his ability to skate with the puck and support attacks. He wants to make an impact and dares to challenge players 1-on-1, sometimes even 1-on-3 or 1-on-4 – with surprisingly good results most of the time. Kivihalme handles the puck well on the point and has a good shot to go with his soft hands.

Jesper Lindgren, 21 – Toronto Maple Leafs, Defenseman

HPK’s Jesper Lindgren was one of the more consistent performers in the final. However, he did seem a bit invisible at times. This was evident especially as the series went on. The right-handed Swede showed flashes of great passing and puck moving skills, but was held to a smaller role because of some bigger name players jousting in front of him.

Lindgren is a smooth skater with the puck and makes good decisions in all areas of the ice. The biggest weakness in Lindgren’s game is his light frame. The 161-pound defenseman can be pushed off the puck easily by bigger forwards, but at least the effort is always there. Lindgren ended up a plus-two in the series and also collected one assist.

Rasmus Kupari, 19 – Los Angeles Kings, Center

Rasmus Kupari didn’t steal the show in the final, but performed at a solid level for such a young player. He tallied three assists in seven games and was even in plus-minus. Kärpät’s offence never really got going despite having a lot of firepower, but Kupari was one of the few players able to make something happen by themselves. Sadly for him, the chances created were often wasted by his teammates.

Rasmus Kupari
Rasmus Kupari is one of the Kings’ brightest young talents. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Kupari excels as a puck-carrying center and uses his speed to catch defensemen off guard. He uses his edges well and does a lot of damage in 1v1 situations. His creativity is also impressive and he is able to set up his teammates in ways that not many players would think of. Despite enjoying speed and open ice more than anything, he was also used a lot on power play situations.

Faceoffs remained a struggle for Kupari, but considering his age, he seems to be doing okay. HPK had a talented bunch of centermen – all specialized in winning draws – and that showed in Kärpät’s faceoff statistics throughout.

Jere Innala, 21 – Draft Eligible, Left Wing

Jere Innala was a positive surprise for any neutral spectator and one of the most visible characters on the ice in each of the seven games. His playstyle is fast and entertaining, somewhat reminiscent of that of Johnny Gaudreau. Sharing the same small stature, both like to hold on to the puck before dishing it off, looking for better passing lanes with their sharp skating.

Innala has a great shot and a knack for scoring, which shows in his ability to find open areas in the offensive zone. He is a constant threat and an aggressive forechecker, making life difficult for his opponents at all times. Lack of strength hinders Innala’s chances of reaching the NHL, however. In the final series he picked up two assists, but was also a minus-five in an otherwise defensively-sound HPK lineup.

Aleksi Heponiemi, 20 – Florida Panthers, Right Wing

Kärpät expected more from Heponiemi leading up to the final, and the same trend continued throughout the HPK series. Heponiemi was left without a single point and his lack of contribution was perhaps the biggest reason Kärpät stumbled on the final hurdle. In Heponiemi’s defense, he didn’t go completely missing in games, but the end product was simply not good enough this time.

Swift Current Broncos center Aleksi Heponiemi
Aleksi Heponiemi joined the stacked Kärpät roster after spending two years with the Swift Current Broncos. (Photo by Christopher Mast/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Heponiemi was a minus-two in the series and his playing time decreased a lot from Game 1 onward. Some of the bright spots in Heponiemi’s play were his vision and playmaking, as well as his excellent puck control in tight spaces. He skates fluently and shoots well from different positions, which makes you wonder why he doesn’t pull the trigger more often. Against HPK, Heponiemi passed his way into trouble quite a few times.

Eetu Tuulola, 21 – Calgary Flames, Right Wing

Eetu Tuulola started the series with a few promising performaces, but seemed to get tired as the games got more and more demanding. He was eventually demoted into HPK’s fourth line, although that could have also been a tactical change by the coaching staff. Tuulola collected one assist and was a minus-two in the final. Foot speed still remains an issue in the 225-pound power forward’s game.

Especially early on, Tuulola used his body well along the boards and moved the puck wisely to help his team retain possession. He was often seen drifting behind the net or towards the corners to receive passes in intentionally tight areas. Tuulola found his way under Kärpät players’ skin with his tenacious attitude and strong puck battles.

In later games of the series Tuulola was chasing the play too often, while also making some dangerous passes when he was in too much of a hurry. Tuulola was used consistently on powerplays, acting as a shooter in the high slot. He received the puck very rarely, but got to show off his powerful shot a few times on even strength.