When the World Juniors started on Boxing Day, many Canadians were hoping they would have to fake an illness this afternoon to get home to watch Canada’s attempt at winning a second straight gold medal. We all know how the tournament went for the Canadian team but that doesn’t mean the gold medal game this afternoon will be any less intriguing. The two most exciting teams in the tournament will meet in the finals and if they can beat Russia, Finland will become the second straight team to win the tournament on home ice.
With three probable top-10 picks in this summer’s draft, many believed that next year would be the peak for Finland. Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujärvi, and Olli Juolevi have been better than anyone would have expected. They are both tremendous talents but it is incredibly rare for 17-year-olds to dominate the U-20 tournament the way the three young Finns have this season. Along with Carolina Hurricanes draft pick Sebastian Aho, Puljujärvi and Laine have led the tournament in scoring and have created chances almost every time they step on the ice right up until the semifinal against Sweden. Fortunately for the Finns when the top line sputtered the line that many thought would probably be their best stepped up. Roope Hintz, Mikko Rantanen and Maple Leafs prospect Kaspari Kapanen were able to step up yesterday and provide the offense needed to make the finals.
Finland’s forwards have been getting all the headlines through the tournament but a pair od OHL defenders have been equally impressive. Detroit Redwings prospect Vili Saarijarvi and draft eligible Olli Juolevi have been two of the best blueliners in the tournament. Saarijarvi has played with the flair that fans of the Flint Firebirds have become accustomed too while Juolevi is showing a poise and all-around game that will lock him in as the second-best defensive prospect in this year’s draft.
On the flip side, Russia has been a team that has succeeded by letting in only 11 goals through 6 games of the tournament. They have relied on great goaltending and have had the best penalty kill in the tournament at a rate of just under 95%.
Up front, the Russians have relied heavily on 19-year-olds in Yegor Korshkov, Maxim Lazarev and Arthur Lauta but the catalyst of their team has been Ivan Provorov. Drafted seventh overall last summer by the Philadelphia, Provorov has been amazing for Russia. He has been their best player and looks like someone who will make an impact on the Flyers as soon as next season.
Both Russia and Finland started different goalies in the semifinals than a game earlier. Alexander had been great in net all tournament for the Russians but was replaced by Washington Capitals first round pick Ilya Samsonov for the semifinal against the Americans. It was surprising to some but the fact that Samsonov is one of the top goalies outside of the NHL made the decision a little more acceptable. Samsonov was great making 26 saves and will likely get the start this afternoon.
Expect to see Kaapo Kakonen in net for the Finns. He took over for Veini Vehvilainen in the second period of Finland’s quarterfinal win against Canada and hasn’t done anything to give the job back. He held the Swedes to a single goal yesterday and has been the better of the two Finnish netminders all tournament.
This is a game that will likely come down to special teams. Russia’s top penalty kill against Finland’s potent powerplay. Finland will likely have the adrenalin going with a home crowd behind them and if they get up early there will be no looking back. Russia surprised many by making it this far but the run will likely end today as the lose the rematch and their first game of the tournament. 5-2 for Finland