Juuse Saros (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Juuse Saros is a big reason why Team Finland won gold at the 2014 World Junior Championship. He’s aiming for a repeat performance this year, despite a rocky start to the season.By Risto Pakarinen Last year, goalie Juuse Saros could do no wrong. He played 44 of the 60 regular season games for his HPK team in his hometown, Hameenlinna, Finland as a rookie. He surely would have played more had he not missed a few weeks during the World Junior Championship in Sweden. At the WJC, his .943 save percentage was the tournament’s best, as was his goals against average of 1.57. Media voted Saros to the tournament all-star team and Finland won gold. At the end of the season, his SP in the Finnish league was .923 and his GAA was 1.76. “When you consider he hadn’t played any Finnish league games before the season and now is at the top of the goalie statistics…well, it’s quite a feat for an 18-year-old,” HPK’s goalie coach Kari Lehtonen told Finnish TV when Saros returned home from Malmo. This season, things haven’t gone as smoothly for the 19-year-old, who was a fourth-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2013. His team struggled early and their young goaltender couldn’t provide the necessary help. His September SP was just .896. To be fair, he’d appeared in just five games and only one of them was a real clunker. However, in October, he posted a .929 SP in seven games. Maybe he was just rusty after a long off-season or maybe the military service he did in the summer still weighed in his legs – and head.
“We, and, I, got off to a rough start and it took a while until I found the right feel for the game,” Saros said. “It wasn’t anything technical, I just had to get back to the loose feeling. I don’t think I felt any pressure, but I’m still young so I guess I have to learn things the hard way.“When I’m in a slump, I remind myself of the fact there’s more to life than hockey. The mental side is probably the most important thing in goaltending.” And if Saros is right, he’s got nothing to worry about. At 5-foot-10, he’s not a physical specimen, like the Lightning’s Ben Bishop or the Predators’ Pekka Rinne, a fellow Finn. “He’s really fast and he reads the game well, but it’s his mental toughness that’s his real strength,” Lehtonen said. Saros will battle Ville Husso for playing time at the world juniors. They’re both among the top 10 in save percentage in the Finnish League. Coach Hannu Jortikka will probably give the edge to Saros because of his track record a year ago. Saros is one of about a dozen players returning to the WJC to defend Finland’s title. “With so many new players,” Saros said, “it’s hard to compare this team to last year’s team, but we see this year’s tournament as another great opportunity to win something big.” Saros said he prefers the flow of world junior action to league play in Finland. “The pace is faster at the world juniors, so the goalie has to be alert all the time. It’s more fun and maybe makes it easier to get involved in the game.” This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.