Most hockey people will tell you that Finland's 2013 WJC squad was a more talented group than the team that skated off the ice in Malmo with the gold medal this year.
"We had a way better team last year but this year everybody did those things that the coach said to do," Ristolainen told Hockey's Future following the gold medal game. "Winning hockey. We put the puck out of our zone. We put the pucks deep. We blocked shots. Everybody did winning things. It was a good team effort."
While one-time Canucks' prospect Karri Kivi certainly deserves praise for his efforts behind the bench, the 43-year-old former Assat Pori coach had a talented group that quickly bought into his team-first concept.
After finishing second to Sweden in Group B in the preliminary round (with a loss to Sweden and an overtime loss to Switzerland), Finland overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals and pummeled Canada 5-1 in their semifinal match.
In the championship game against Sweden the Finns twice had one goal leads, scoring in the game's opening minute and then getting a goal just a little over a minute after Sweden tied the game at 1-1 in the second period. Sweden received five straight power-plays and tied the game 2-2 with just under 10 minutes to play.
Ristolainen then took a puck along the boards, made a move to beat a Swedish defenseman, and slid the puck between the legs of Sweden goalie Oscar Dansk.
The Buffalo Sabres prospect, who was playing in his third WJC tournament, felt the gold medal was a redemption of sorts for the squad.
"Actually the first year in Calgary we lost the semifinals to Sweden. Today I thought about that a lot before the game," he told HF's Chapin Langvogt. "It hurt me a lot and all the guys that played on that team. Last year we had one of the best teams in Finland in the last ten years and we played badly and it was a disappointing tournament for us."
Teuvo Teravainen was Finland's top forward at last year's disappointing seventh place finish in Ufa, Russia and the Chicago Blackhawks' first round pick in 2012 was even better in his second U20 WJC tournament this year. While his linemate Saku Maenalanen (NSH) led all goal-scorers with seven goals in seven games – including the second goal in the second period against Sweden – it was Teravainen who was a constant play-making threat and dominated all over the ice.
The Jokerit forward assisted on all three goals in the gold medal game and led all scorers with two goals and 13 assists in seven games. Now in his third pro season in Finland's Liiga, the 19-year-old could be an interesting addition in Chicago if he comes over in 2014-15.
"We haven't won a medal in seven years and we made it this year and won a gold medal," said Teravainen after the Sweden game. "It means a lot."
As disappointing as the defense corps for Finland was in 2013, this group was easily the unsung heroes for Finland in this year's tournament, so it was perhaps fitting that Ristolainen got the game-winner against Sweden.
Every game, the Finland defensemen seemed to do a great job of letting goaltender Juuse Saros get a clean view of shots and did yeoman's work in preventing second chance opportunities or getting the puck out of the Finnish end. Offensively, all seven defensemen for Finland had at least one point.
While it is tempting to give Ristolainen the nod due to his historic goal and team-leading three goals, equally strong cases can be made for either of Finland's top pairing defensemen, Ville Pokka (NYI) and Esa Lindell (DAL).
Pokka and Lindell were especially strong in their own end, particularly in the strong penalty-killing efforts against Canada and Sweden in the final two games. And it was Lindell who beat Dansk with a shot 28 seconds into the gold medal game to set the tone for the evening.
While he may not have the offensive upside of players like Ristolainen and 18-year-old Julius Honka, and has not yet established himself at the Liiga level as has Pokka, Lindell earned highest marks for his play in Malmo and was the team's top defenseman.
It's hard to imagine a more fitting epitome of a "team championship" than the win by Finland in this year's WJC, but there was one player who clearly stood out — 18-year-old goalie Juuse Saros (NSH).
The picture of calm under pressure, Saros played in six of seven games for Finland and was 5-0 with a 1.57 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. The HPK goalie was at his best in the medal round, stopping 23 of 24 shots in the win over Canada in the semifinals and making 35 saves in the gold medal game against Sweden.
Regardless of the situation, Saros seems to play with quickness yet control and has just the right technique for each specific challenge. He also seemed to set the tempo – either freezing the puck or keeping it moving – depending on the circumstance.
"I think he should be the best goalie in the tournament," Ristolainen said. "He's a very good goalie and a big part of our team. He makes plays in all situations."
Winger Artturi Lehkonen (MTL) was overshadowed a bit due to the offensive exploits of his linemates Maenalanen and Teravainen but no forward was as important to Finland's success as Lehkonen.
Offensively, he contributed two goals with two assists and finished the tournament +7 but it was his play in his own end — especially on the penalty kill — that drew raves from those who watched the tournament.
Known for his offensive skills and scoring touch in junior hockey and with KalPa in Liiiga play, the Canadiens' 2013 second round pick showed the courage to block shots and impressive anticipatory skills in reading plays and foiling opposition chances.
2014 prospects to watch
Honka, who skates for the WHL's Swift Current Broncos, entered the 2014 World Junior Championship as the highest ranked prospect from Finland heading into the tournament and only improved his reputation with his play in Malmo. (KalPa forward Kaspari Kapanen, also expected to go early in the 2014 NHL Draft, missed the tournament due to injury.)
The third-leading scorer amongst WHL defensemen, Honka did not play as much as some of the veteran defenders for Finland, but when given the opportunity displayed the skating ability and skills that have garnered him attention.
For the tournament he finished +1 with one assist and six penalty minutes in seven games.
Undrafted players worthy of a second look
While much of the acclaim went to the play of Finland's top line and defensemen, several other forwards accorded themselves well and could draw late round interest after having previously passed through the draft.
The two most prominent of those forwards are Lukko's Joni Nikko and Juuso Ikonen, who was obtained by JyP just prior to the WJC after starting the Liiga season with Espoo Blues.
Nikko, who missed a good portion of the 2012-13 season, has prototypical size for an NHL forward and used that size to his advantage in all three zones. Off to a fast start with Lukko in his first Liiga season with 15 points (8 goals, 7 assists) in 27 games, he scored three goals in Malmo, including one against Canada in the semifinals.
In terms of pure skills and skating ability, there are few 19-year-olds that can match Ikonen (no relation to Team Finland teammate and current Kingston Frontenacs' forward Henri Ikonen (TBL)). However, listed at 5'9 and 170 pounds, there are concerns about his strength and durability to play the more physical North American pro game. In seven WJC games he scored one goal with two assists. While it is more likely that NHL clubs track his development and then try to sign him as an unrestricted free agent down the road if he develops, Ikonen could be an intriguing late round selection.
Eighteen-year-old goalie Ville Husso, who was not selected in the 2013 NHL Draft but has played well for HIFK in Liiga this season, started two preliminary round games for Finland — the 4-2 loss to Sweden and the shoot out loss to Switzerland. In the Switzerland game he was relieved by Saros in the second period. It's tough to imagine any goalie getting a full evaluation based on a two-game stint, with Husso's draft prospects likely to be determined by his play in Liiga the rest of the 2013-14 season.
Finland WJC Video Interviews & Podcasts