2013 WJC Review: Finland takes step backward to relegation round

By Tony Piscotta

Ville Pokka - Finland

Photo: Finnish defenseman and New York Islanders prospect Ville Pokka showed a solid, all-around game at the 2013 World Junior Championship (courtesy of Chapin Landvogt/HF)

For North American hockey fans to understand Finland's seventh-place finish at the 2013 World Junior Championship tournament, all anyone has to do is think back to 2013 gold medal-winning USA's experience at last year's tournament in Western Canada.

Like the Americans a year ago, Finland came into this WJC with a team full of promise and was very strong in two pre-tournament games.

After handling the opening game against an inferior opponent that would eventually be relegated (Denmark for the USA, Latvia in Finland's case), the team stumbled in its next two games and needed to upset its arch-rival if it was to avoid the relegation round.

Ironically, Finland was one of the two teams to knock off the USA last year. The Czech Republic, as they did against the Americans a year ago, were badly out-shot by Finland in this year's tournament but received an outstanding goaltending performance to pull off the upset.

In last year's tournament, it was Detroit Red Wings' prospect Petr Mrazek who stopped 52 of 54 shots in a 5-2 upset win over the USA. In Finland's game with the Czech Republic this year, Patrik Bartosak stopped 29 of 30 shots and Dmitri Jaskin scored into an empty net in a 3-1 victory.

Finland rebounded against Switzerland, coming back with a pair of late goals to send the game into overtime and then winning 5-4 when Markus Granlund was the only shooter to score in 5 rounds of a shootout.

But needing a win against Sweden to advance to the medal round (it was Canada that eliminated the USA a year ago), Finland fell behind 3-0 before rallying to tie the game only to have Sweden pull away late for a 7-4 win.

In the two relegation games, Finland easily handled Germany (8-0) and Slovakia (11-4).

While the similarity in results doesn't guarantee that it will be Finland carrying around the trophy at next year's tournament in Sweden, the fact that several of the players from this year's team will be eligible to play in next year's games is encouraging.

Top Forward

A quick look at the leading scorers in the this year's tournament would lead you to believe that Finland's forwards had an outstanding tournament. After Canada's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who led all scorers with 15 points, the next three scorers were from Finland – Joel Armia (BUF), Markus Granlund (CGY), and Teuvo Teravainen (CHI) with 12, 12, and 11 points, respectively. However, as in last year's tournament, when Markus's brother Mikael Granlund (MIN) and Teemu Pulkkinen (DET) both finished in the Top 5, the numbers were a bit misleading, as the bulk of those points came against the three weaker opponents in blowouts.

In this year's tournament, Armia struggled at times before scoring two big goals against Sweden while Granlund scored two of his four goals (excluding the shootout goal) against Latvia and Germany.

Teravainen, who unlike Armia and Granlund was not with the fourth-place team in Calgary a year ago and was playing in his first U-20 World Junior Championship tournament, was the most consistent forward for the Young Lions and would have to have been considered their top forward.

In addition to scoring Finland's only goal against the Czech Republic and scoring twice in the win over Switzerland, he was a constant factor in all six games and might have had even more points had it not been for some bad "puck luck". Teravainen's plus-six rating was the top mark for Finland's forwards. In addition to his offensive play, Teravainen was also the best Finnish forward when it came to getting back and putting pressure on the opposing attack.

Top Defensemen

One area that was a bit of a disappointment for Finland was it's play on the back end. Some of the struggles may be attributed to the absence of two-way forward Miro Aaltonen, who suffered a broken ankle in the opening game against Latvia, forcing Finland to juggle it's line combinations and never having true shutdown lower lines like it had last year in Calgary. Finland's top defenseman Olli Maatta (PIT), who plays for the OHL's London Knights, was also not at full strength, missing the Czech Republic game due to illness. But the real issues that hurt Finland, particularly against Switzerland and Sweden, were untimely penalties and key turnovers, especially by the two lower defense pairings.

Two exceptions were returnee Ville Pokka (NYI) and Petteri Lindbohm (STL).

Of the two, Pokka was a force both offensively and defensively for Finland. He shared the points lead amongst defensemen for Finland with Rasmus Ristolainen (both had 2 goals and 4 assists). Pokka was also a team-leading plus-six and was selected by his coaches as the player of the game in the win over Germany.

Team MVP

At first glance the statistics for Team Finland goaltender Joonas Korpisalo (CBJ) are hardly noteworthy. In only one game did he face more than 25 shots (the loss to Sweden) and both his goals-against (3.36) and save percentage (.858) hardly garner much attention. But to anyone who watched Finland play in the tournament, Korpisalo's value was quite apparent.

In the loss to the Czech Republic, neither of the goals he allowed were easy saves while a couple of the plays he made late in the game allowed Finland to go into the final seconds with a chance to tie things up.

Similarly, in both the Switzerland and Sweden games, it was usually crucial breakdowns which left him all but helpless that led to opposition goals. In both games, he bounced back from those early breakdowns to give his team a chance to win. He was at his best in the shootout with Switzerland, stopping all five shots he faced to out-duel Switzerland's impressive Melvin Nyffeler.

Playing in five of six games for Finland, Korpisalo finished 3-2.

Unsung Player

Lindbohm was the team captain for Finland. Heading into this year's tournament, much of the focus was on the first line of Armia, Granlund and Miikka Salomaki (NAS), as well as the exciting 2013 draft-eligible prospects Ristolainen, Aleksander Barkov and Artturi Lehkonen.

But it was Lindbohm who was a solid, steadying presence for Finland, finishing plus-eight while chipping in 2 assists. Lindbohm had an assist (along with Pokka) on Teravainen's goal against the Czech Republic and was selected by the Finnish coaching staff as the team's player of the game.

2013 prospects to watch

Of the five players on this year's team that will be eligible for the NHL Draft for the first time in June, much of the attention was on forwards Aleksander Barkov and Artturi Lehkonen as well as Ristolainen. Both Barkov and Ristolainen were returnee's from last year's Finnish team while Lehkonen was competing in the U-20 World Junior Championship for the first  time.

Expected to be a top-five pick due both to his size and skill level as well as the impressive numbers he's put up in the SM-Liiga this season (30 points in 34 games), Barkov showed glimpses of that talent as well as strength in small areas. Like the rest of his team, however, there were times when he didn't seem as productive as would be expected.

Much the same could be said of Ristolainen. Now in his second full season playing in the SM-Liiga, his goal against Sweden was an impressive shot and he was a key to Finland's power play. He has the size, skating ability, and strength that all point to him being an outstanding prospect. The key question will be consistency particularly in the harder, tighter spaces in which he will be forced to compete in North America.

Perhaps no other player on Finland was affected more adversely by the injury to Aaltonen than Lehkonen. A gifted offensive player who has 23 points in 33 games for KalPa in the SM-Liiga, Lehkonen has scorer skills and is an offensive threat. With Aaltonen out of the lineup Finland was forced to go to more of a traditional two-offensive line setup, putting Lehkonen in more of a checker's role. As a result, his offense and opportunities were limited. After scoring Finland's first goal in the opening game against Latvia, his other two goals came in the final game of the relegation round against Slovakia.

Goalie Janne Juvonen and forward Saku Salminen were the other two players for Finland who will be eligible for the draft for the first time. Juvonen, who plays for Pelicans, stopped all 15 shots he faced in his only start, the 8-0 relegation round win over Germany. Salminen has decent size but saw limited ice time in the tournament, finishing minus-one with no points nor penalties.

Undrafted player worthy of a second look

After the two exhibition games with Canada and the USA prior to the tournament, as well as the opening game against Latvia, the obvious choice here would have been Aaltonen. Though undersized by NHL standards (5'10", 165), possibly the reason he has passed through two drafts, the Joensuu native was a returnee from last year's squad and figured to be a key part of Finland's team. Aaltonen scored 2 goals with 1 assist in the game with Latvia before suffering an ugly ankle injury when his skate appeared to stick in the ice and he fell back over the leg. The broken ankle will keep him out for the rest of the season.

One player who may have earned himself a second look with his play in Ufa is HIFK's Thomas Nykopp. Nykopp, who played for the USHL's Tri-City Storm in 2011-12, has some issues to work out in terms of his skating stride and agility, and doesn't appear to have amazing offensive skills. However, the strength of his game is his sound two-way play, willingness to defend and block shots, and knack for creating opportunities on the power play. Two of his four assists at the WJC came in the game against Sweden.