Welcome to the greatest era in Finnish junior hockey history. After winning gold at both the 2014 and 2016 World Juniors, the Finns have now added U18 supremacy to their resume.
“Today everything worked,” said Finnish coach Jussi Ahokas. “It was a great, great game. All our guys had a great effort.”
It is Finland’s first U18 gold since winning back-to-back titles in the first two tournaments back in 1999 and 2000. Finland settled for silver last year in a 2-1 overtime loss to the United States.
“The semi-final and this game were unreal,” said Finnish captain Juuso Valimaki. “I don’t have any words. We just played so well.”
Despite the pain of losing, this silver should offer some consolation for the Swedes. It was Sweden’s first U18 medal since earning silver annually from 2010 to 2012. They’ve never won the gold.
“If I look at the whole tournament, I’m really proud of the team, how we played and acted,” said Swedish coach Torgny Bendelin. “We got to the final and took the silver medal. But I’m so sorry for the players. They couldn’t show their really strong capacity they have. It just didn’t come out today.”
For both teams, it was a major accomplishment to make the final when most observers anticipated a U.S.-Canada showdown.
Eeli Tolvanen, Otto Somppi and Eetu Tuulola had the other goals for Finland. Janne Kuokkanen had three assists, and Kasper Kotkansalo added two helpers.
Puljujarvi is now one of just three players who have won IIHF U18 and U20 gold in the same year. (Jason Zucker and Jack Campbell also achieved the feat with the U.S. in 2010.) The 2016 World Junior MVP was a force after joining the team for the playoff round. Despite enduring a sore wrist and illness, he notched five goals and two assists in four games. He was named a tournament all-star.
“Puljujarvi had an unreal game,” said Ahokas. “Unreal. We need players like that.”
Lias Andersson scored the lone goal for Sweden.
“I think we played a bad game today,” said Andersson. “You can’t win a final like that. It just wasn’t there today.”
Finnish goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen won his third straight game since taking over from the ailing Leevi Laakso, who played all of Finland’s group games. Finland outshot Sweden 34-18.
Of Luukkonen’s all-star performance, Ahokas said: “The boy has no nerves. He just jumps in and plays like that. He was one of the keys to our win.”
After beating Russia 4-3 in the quarter-finals and dethroning the host Americans with a 4-2 semi-final win, Ahokas’s troops needed another hard-working, two-way effort to capture the big prize. They got it in spades in the first Sweden-Finland final in U18 history.
At 1:15, Finland opened the scoring when Tolvanen came down right wing and surprised Swedish starter Filip Gustavsson with a shot that flew over his left shoulder. It was Tolvanen’s seventh goal, tying him for the tournament lead.
“I almost dumped it deep, but I tried a shot and it went in,” said Tolvanen. “I’m happy.”
Moments later, Luukkonen showed he came ready to play when he stopped an Alexander Nylander shot that popped his mask off.
Finland jumped into a 2-0 lead at 15:28. Kuokkanen cut out of the corner and tried to stuff it in, and the puck came loose for Somppi to bang in.
Just 51 seconds later, it was 3-0. Tuulola was allowed to curl around the Swedish net and fire it past Gustavsson on the short side.
“I thought when we got the 3-0 lead, if we just play our game, we will win,” said Ahokas.
Finland kept hustling, outshooting Sweden 14-3 in the opening stanza. A banner in the stands said: “Good Luck Finland!” But the Finns were making their own luck.
Early in the second period, video review confirmed that Kuokkanen did not score on another attempt to stuff in the puck. The Swedes picked up their tempo, but the Finns still kept them on the perimeter.
At 11:01, Puljujarvi scored a back-breaking goal on a great individual rush. He took a pass from Kuokkanen at the Swedish blue line, powered past the defence, and deked to the forehand to score.
One minute later, Andersson spoiled Luukkonen’s shutout bid, beating him with a shot from right wing that caught the far post to make it 4-1.
Regardless, the Finns continued to play with composure. Even at the end of the second period, when they took a bench minor for too many men, they smartly killed it off.
Looking for a momentum-changer, the Swedes inserted backup goalie Filip Larsson to start the third period. But the newcomer couldn’t stop Puljujarvi. Kuokkanen set him up for a huge slap shot from the right faceoff circle that went five-hole for a 5-1 lead at 5:14.
That was it. ABBA hasn’t made a comeback, and neither would the U18 Swedes this night.
“I don’t want to blame anybody because I am in charge,” said Bendelin. “I am the head coach. My job is to make the team be on the top. Probably I failed because the team was dead. No energy. Nothing. We tried to change lines, but nothing.”
Tuulola infuriated the Swedes when he laid out defenceman Timothy Liljegren with a big hit in the neutral zone with under two minutes to play. A scrum erupted, and Finland got a 5-on-3 to finish off the game. Puljujarvi completed his hat trick with a slick move in tight with 47 seconds left.
At the final buzzer, the Finns celebrated wildly in their end as AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” played in the background.
“Of course, it’s a big year,” said Kuokkanen. “Finland won the World Juniors and now we won this. I think it’s probably the best year ever for us. If we keep working hard, maybe we will win again next year.”
The Finns will look to defend their gold medal at the 2017 IIHF U18 World Championship in Slovakia. The tournament takes place in Poprad and Spisska Nova Ves.
A pre-game ceremonial puck drop featured Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, the University of North Dakota hockey stars who won IIHF World Women’s Championship gold with the U.S. in Kamloops, Canada earlier this month.
(Photos by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)