Kaapo Kahkonen (photo by Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)
Minnesota Wild prospect Kaapo Kahkonen came on in relief against Canada and gave the Finns the momentum shift they needed - not to mention some big saves - to earn a berth in the semifinal.
HELSINKI, FINLAND - We knew pretty early on in this tournament that Finland could score, but could the Young Lions keep the puck out of their own net? In the round robin, that was no guarantee. Russia strafed them for six in a loss, while the Czechs got four past the Finns in a game the hosts would win 5-4.
So yes, it appears as though the Finns played with fire again in their quarterfinal win over Canada (which had a 6-5 score), but talk to the players and they'll tell you the goalie change made early in the second period really helped get them on track. Out came Veini Vehvilainen and in came Kaapo Kahkonen.
"We were cold," said Florida Panthers pick Juho Lammikko. “Veini played good, but after that Kahkonen was pretty good. It gave us power.”
Kahkonen went on to stop 22 of 24 shots, helping turn the tide on what had been a 3-2 Canada lead. Most importantly, he made some huge saves right away, during a time when Canada could have really gained some traction.
“He was phenomenal," said Toronto prospect Kasperi Kapanen. "Without a couple of his saves I don't think we would have won. He really stood on his head.”
Getting that flurry of action right away actually helped Kahkonen get into a rhythm.
“It's easier if you get a few shots when you go in," Kahkonen said. "You get the touch of the puck and the feeling. But it's not hard to get pumped up for a game like that, playing in front of the home crowd against Team Canada.”
Having young guns Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi tearing around the arena didn't hurt either, but Kahkonen was certainly a stabilizer. At 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, the Minnesota Wild draft pick takes up a nice amount of net, but he can move, too. He doesn't worship any one NHL goaltender in particular, but instead prefers to pick up traits from a number of them.
Minnesota has been known as a goalie haven for years, from Manny Fernandez to Niklas Backstrom, Devan Dubnyk to Josh Harding. So Kahkonen knows he is in good hands and often texts or emails team scouts. He has also attended two summer development camps with the franchise.
Currently starring for the Liiga's Espoo Blues, Kahkonen is rocking a 2.26 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, better numbers than the veteran starter on his squad (Kahkonen has played 14 games to Christian Engstrand's 19). So why was Vehvilainen, a smaller, younger, undrafted goalie playing ahead of him? Well, Vehvilainen has the best stats of any goalie in Finland right now, so it's understandable he would get a long leash.
But Finland is in the semifinal thanks in large part to Kahkonen and he was glad to be a part of it all.
“It was awesome," he said. "So many people out there watching the game...the noise, the atmosphere...it was amazing.”
Considering the Finns take on arch-rival Sweden next, that atmosphere is probably going to be the same: loud, proud and ice-shaking.