MALMO, SWEDEN – For the players on Finland, it was a storybook ending. For the raucous Swedish fans at Malmo Arena, it was a grisly nightmare. Finland beat the host country 3-2 in overtime to win gold at the world juniors for the first time since 1998.
According to the players, first-year coach Karri Kivi gave them the perfect framework for the stunning upset in a pre-game pep talk.
“He said ‘go out there, we haven’t written the last page of our story,’ ” said New York Islanders prospect Ville Pokka. “We wrote it today, that’s the best thing. We believed we could win if we played as a team. That was our ending.”
Defense was the key for Finland in the lopsided win over Canada in the semifinal and came in handy once again against the Swedes, who had beaten the Finns in the round robin. With loads of talent up front, the Swedes looked like college basketball’s Princeton offense on ice at times, setting up deadly tip plays and backdoor passes that would have beaten most goalies, but not Nashville pick Juuse Saros, who was once again outstanding.
“I felt good today,” Saros said. “Sweden made some good screens but we blocked a lot of shots and the defense was amazing, very sacrificial again.”
And though Chicago Blackhawks prospect Teuvo Teravainen was again a difference-maker, the final glory belonged to Buffalo Sabres pick Rasmus Ristolainen. Both he and Swedish defenseman Robert Hagg made rushes in the last two minutes of regulation in an attempt to break the 2-2 deadlock, but the final score wasn’t determined until Ristolainen swooped in front of the net and past Hagg in overtime, beating goaltender Oscar Dansk and silencing the Swedish crowd.
“Just amazing,” Saros said. “Every time he was on the ice in overtime it was a dangerous situation in the offensive zone.”
What makes the victory all the more incredible is that Finland almost blew it in the quarterfinal, finding themselves down 3-1 midway through the second period to the Czech Republic before a timeout led to a 5-3 comeback win.
“It’s a perfect story,” Ristolainen said. “We played pretty bad against the Czechs, but we trusted that we could win the game because we were the better team still. It was big emotions after that game, then we played a very good 60 minutes against Canada but our team didn’t want to just come for silver. We’ve got a lot of winning players and we just gave it all.”
The coach was pragmatic about that turning point in the Czech game.
“That’s hockey,” Kivi said. “If you want to go to the end, you also need luck. you have to have confidence because the game is 60 minutes.”
While it’s usually an easy out to look at potential returning players and tab this year’s winner as the early favorite to repeat next year, this may have been a case of the right kids coming together at the right time. Top scorers such as Teravainen and linemate Saku Maenalanen will age out, as will the entire defense corps, save 2014 draft prospect Julius Honka. But the Finns will get Saros back and no one expected the Suomi to triumph in Malmo, so maybe lightning can strike twice when the next gold is handed out in Toronto.
Get scores, schedules and more on THN.com’s World Junior Championship Central page.