It would be easy to summarize the experience of Team Finland at the 2012 U20 World Junior Championship by saying the team ended the tournament the way it started – losing to Canada. To do so would be a huge injustice to the players and coaches of the team, and also not begin to tell half of the story of the Finns’ surprising and exciting run to the semifinals.
After losing in what seemed to be demoralizing fashion, 8-1, to the host team Canada in the opening game, the Finns rebounded to stun the USA, 4-1, two nights later. After breezing past Denmar, they then shutout the Czech Republic in the last game of pool play to finish second in their group. After a sloppy, 8-5, win over Slovakia in the quarterfinals, Finland was on the brink of knocking off highly-favored Sweden, leading 2-0 entering the third period and 2-1 with under two minutes left, before falling in the shootout.
In the bronze medal game Finland appeared to finally run out of steam against the powerful Canadians, losing 4-0.
While the team did not win a medal, their effort would have to be considered a success, and a fine debut for first-time coach Raimo Helminen.
Mikael Granlund entered the WJC as the most high profile player for Finland, both because of his play in the domestic SM-Liiga this year with Jokerit and for the anticipation that he will join the Minnesota Wild next season. While on paper his stat line looks decent, two goals with nine assists and plus-four in seven games, Granlund did not have the tournament he would have liked.
Playing on Finland’s top line with his brother (and Calgary prospect) Markus and Red Wings’ prospect Teemu Pulkkinen, it was thought that that line would dominate the tournament. For the most part, the line was held in check against Finland’s four toughest opponents (twice against Canada, USA, Czech Republic, and Sweden). In those five games Granlaund scored once (against the USA) and had two assists (versus the Czech Republic).
Similarly, Pulkkinen had a big tournament statistically (six goals, four assists, plus-four) but struggled against the stronger nations. Four of Pulkkinen’s goals, including three in the final period, were scored in the 10-1 win over Denmark. Pulkkinen was held off the board in the two games with Canada and in the semifinal game versus Sweden. While his scoring ability and quick release are impressive (he led Finland with 42 shots on goal), he did little to dispel the notion that his game is more suited to the open spaces of European hockey than it will be in the tighter checking North American game.
Of the big three, Markus Granlund may have done the most to improve his standing among North American scouts. Though his style of play is less polished than his linemates, the younger Granlund displayed strong play-making instincts and a willingness to play in the smaller areas.
While the big line did not have the tournament it would have liked, Finland’s second and third lines were eye-opening at the tournament.
Joel Armia, a first round pick of the Sabres last June, proved to be an opportunistic and lethal sniper during the tournament. Almost barely noticeable at times during the tournament, he would spring up at just the right time to score big goals. Armia scored twice against the USA and had what looked like it would be the biggest goal of the tournament for the Finns, stealing the puck off a Swedish defender and beating Sweden’s goalie Johan Gustafsson (MIN) to give Finland a 2-0 lead. Armia ended the tournament with five goals and two assists and was plus-two with a team-leading 16 penalty minutes. He was also the loan shooter to convert in the shootout loss to Sweden.
Armia’s line mates Mikko Salomaki (NSH) and Joonas Donskoi (FLA) also had strong two-way tournaments for Finland. Salomaki scored the opening goal in the win over the USA and was one of the strongest players in his own end. In seven games he scored three goals with three assists and was a plus-one. Donskoi scored single goals against Slovakia and the Czech Republic but like Salomaki was a constant force on both ends of the ice for Finland.
While the players on the top two lines were fairly well known, it was the play of Finland’s third and fourth group that led to much of the team’s success – particularly in the near-miss against Sweden.
Nineteen-year-old Phoenix Coyotes‘ prospect Alexander Ruuttu was playing in a world championship tournament in a Suomi sweater for the first time and played well on a line with undrafted 18-year-old Miro Aaltonen and 2013 draft eligible 16-year-old Alexander Barkov.
Ruutu scored three goals, including the Finns’ first goal of the tournament against Canada and the opening goal against Sweden in the semifinals. Aaltonen, who made his SM-Liiga debut with Espoo Blues this year and has played for Jokipojat in Mestis, proved to be an effective playmaker and forechecker. Meanwhile Barkov proved to be capable of competing at the U20 level despite being three years younger than many of his opponents.
In the game against Sweden, Helminen used his fourth line quite a bit late in the game and the players filled their roles quite well. While "checking line forward" is not a role that North American GMs generally look to fill with European players, the quartet of Mikael Kuronen, Markus Hannikainen, Roope Hamalainen, and Otto Paajanen all skated well and were very effective in their forechecking duties.
The biggest unknown heading into the tournament, the defense corps for Finland acquitted itself well – and several players opened scouts eyes with their play in the tournament.
Blues’ prospect Jani Hakanpaa, an assistant captain, likely received the most scrutiny since the word out of Finland was that he has shown great improvement this season playing for Espoo Blues in the SM-Liiga. The big defenseman was impressive, not only with his play in his own end but for his play on the power play and his ability to lead the rush and stick handle with dexterity despite his large frame. His play was especially noticeable in the game against Sweden when, late in a 2-1 game he showed the willingness and ability to skate through the Swedish defenders and transition from defense to offense.
Konsta Makinen, an undrafted 19-year-old, opened some eyes with his defensive play and physical toughness. Despite being one of the smaller players on the Finnish blue line (listed as 5’9, 165), Makinen was frequently willing to engage opposing forwards and was one of the stronger defenders in his own end.
Ville Pokka and Rasmus Ristolainen, a pair of 17-year-olds, were also impressive for Finland during the tournament.
Pokka, ranked fifth amongst European skaters in Central Scouting’s recently released mid-term rankings for the 2012 NHL Draft, was sound defensively while showing creative playmaking skills and a willingness to handle the puck. He finished the tournament with one goal and three assists and was plus-three.
Ristolainen made his SM-Liiga debut for TPS this season as a 16-year-old and is eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft. Despite being the second youngest player for Finland, he showed no hesitance in making plays with the puck and was also willing to engage in physical play.
Olli Maatta, a 17-year-old currently playing for the London Knights, appeared in just one game for Finland, suffering a concussion in Finland’s opening game against Canada after being checked by Blue Jackets’ prospect Boone Jenner.
Entering the tournament there was some question as to which goalie Helminen would use in the tournament. Eighteen-year-old Richard Ullberg was having a very good season statistically in the SM-Liiga while Christopher Gibson (LAK) and Sami Aittokallio (COL) both had international experience.
By the end of the tournament, it was Aittokallio who shined for Finland. While the two lasting images many fans will have of Aittokallio are his storming off the ice in frustration after allowing a late goal in the 8-5 win over Slovakia and then his ill-fated clearing attempt behind the net against Sweden that allowed the Swedes to score the tying goal, it could be argued that he was Finland’s Most Valuable Player.
Aittokallio, who was slated to be Finland’s starter two years ago at the U18 WJC but missed the tournament after suffering an ankle injury, made his first start in the game against the United States and stopped 38 of 39 shots. He was most impressive in the last two periods, making 30 saves with the game hanging in the balance. Finland was again out-shot facing the Czech Republic, 36-28, but Aittkokallio stopped all 36 shots and out-dueled Petr Mrazek (DET), who garnered a lot of media attention for his strong play against the USA.
After the aforementioned game with Slovakia, Aittokallio played arguably the best game of the tournament for a goalie in Finland’s semifinal with Sweden – stopping 56 of 58 shots -including 15 stops in the third period and eight more in overtime.
Overall, Aittokallio finished the tournament 3-2 with a 2.52 goals against average and .937 save percentage.
Gibson, a second-round pick of the Kings in 2011 and currently the goalie for Chicoutimi in the QMJHL, started the opener against Canada when Finland was blitzed, 8-1; stopping 34 of 42 shots. He played in one other game in the tournament, a 10-1 win over Denmark, and stopped 24 of 25 shots.