Kasperi Kapanen (#24) had the golden goal (Photo by Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)
HELSINKI, FINLAND - He's got it. That was my exact thought as Kasperi Kapanen made his way around the net, en route to a wraparound goal that set a nation on fire as Finland won world junior gold on home ice. The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect had the speed, while a sliding Russian defenseman's skate seemed to clip goalie Andrei Georgiev, preventing the netminder from getting over in time. And that's how an instant classic ended.
What else do you call a game between two countries with poisonous history, a game in which Russia gave up two one-goal leads, Finland gave up another and Andrei Svetlakov deflated 5.5 million hearts by tying the game with 6.9 seconds to go?
What promised to be a battle of wills started out just so. Russia's powerful, effective team defense versus Finland's strong, high-octane offense. For the first period, Russia was in control, but as the game went on, the momentum bounced atomically.
Finland kept pushing and led by 2016 super-prospect Patrik Laine, finally busted the armor early in the third period.
“In the second period we created a lot of scoring chances but didn't get the prize," Laine said. "We kept going in the third and on that first shift, it was nice that it went in.”
What had been a chess match of brute strength somewhat morphed in the final stanza as the teams traded goals, but with Russian captain Vladislav Kamenev tossed from the game for abusing an official, it appeared as though a late Finnish goal would prove to be the winner. That's when Andrei Svetlatov tipped an Ivan Provorov point shot with less than seven seconds remaining to stun a hopeful Finnish nation and usher in overtime.
What is interesting here is that before the game, Finnish reporters had noted that in the past, the fans would hope for a Finland victory in big games, but didn't count on it happening. On this night, however, the crowd seemed confident in their Young Lions heading into the match and as it turns out, so did the boys themselves.
“We had pretty good spirit there," Laine said. "We were kinda depressed after the 3-3 goal, but we knew that one more goal would win us the championship. 'Just one spot and we can score' – and that's what happened.”
For Kapanen, it was obviously a huge score. The son of a national favorite in Sami Kapanen, the offspring has seen many ups and downs in his career already. He has struggled in past international outings, seen his draft stock dip to later in the first round, then get traded by his first franchise, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in a deal for star sniper Phil Kessel. Now with the Toronto Maple Leafs' AHL Marlies squad, he has been up and down there, too. But none of that matters right now in Helsinki.
“It's probably one of the best moments I've ever encountered in my lifetime," Kapanen said. "It was a big goal, but the team really deserved to win and I'm happy we won.”
And how's this for kismet: In 1998, Finland played Russia in the final of the world juniors in the very same arena. The Finns won in overtime on a goal scored on the exact same side of the ice and the team was coached by Hannu Kapanen, Kasperi's grandfather.
As for the 2016 golden goal itself, Kapanen recalls trying to take the Russian D-man 1-on-1, then going behind the net and seeing no goalie on the other side.
“After that," Kapanen said, "everything is a little blurry.”