Mikko Rantanen (left) celebrates (photo by Sarah Fuqua)
The Colorado Avalanche first-rounder and veteran of six NHL games broke out of a slump to help the home team upset their previously unbeaten rivals in the world junior semifinal.
HELSINKI, FINLAND - Swedish defenseman William Lagesson let out a primal scream, then loudly muttered to himself as he stalked off the ice. The rugged Edmonton Oilers prospect had, after all, managed to shut down Finnish super-teen Jesse Puljujarvi; something unheard of in this edition of the world juniors. But while Puljujarvi's deadly line with Carolina pick Sebastian Aho and another 2016 draft phenom, Patrik Laine, was held off the scoresheet, Finland had a Plan B.
Captain and Colorado Avalanche prospect Mikko Rantanen finally broke out with two points in Finland's 2-1 win over their archrivals, sending Hartwall Arena into a frenzy.
“It felt good," Rantanen said. "Myself and our line played our best game of the tournament and it was a good time for that.”
Rantanen, who was Finland's only successful scoring threat last year, had accumulated just two points through the first five games of the tournament - shocking, considering he played six games for Colorado at the start of the season and has been a killer in the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage since being reassigned. His situation had been similar to Canada's Jake Virtanen, who struggled mightily despite his NHL experience with the Vancouver Canucks.
Luckily for the Finns, the Aho-Laine-Puljujarvi trio have all put up double digits in points, so neutralizing them was only half the problem for Sweden.
“The important thing is we were good defensively today," said Dallas pick and Rantanen linemate Roope Hintz. "A couple of games we've given up five goals and lost, so this was good."
Hintz and Antti Kalapudas both scored, with Rantanen assisting on both efforts. At the same time, the kids made sure to contribute in different ways, even with Lagesson waging a pitched battle with Puljujarvi all game long.
“Sweden defended really well against the first line," Rantanen said. "They didn't score, but they defended really well and chipped pucks out. That shows what good team spirit we have; everybody is playing for the team.”
Naturally, the enthusiastic Finnish crowd helped and the players cited the Hartwall faithful as a rallying point, even after Sweden scored first. Beating their big brothers is always exciting for Finland, but this particular crop had specific motivation from a past humiliation, as New York Rangers prospect Aleksi Saarela noted:
“They beat us 10-0 at the under-18s," he said. "So this was good revenge.”
Saarela didn't score, but looked tremendously dangerous all night, using his speed and puck-hawking abilities to torture the Tre Kronor. His linemate, Toronto pick Kasperi Kapanen, also looked more engaged than usual, which is great news for Suomi as the local kids prepare for the gold medal game.