Welcome to the playoff edition of the Liiga Report. If you want to know what happened during the regular season, check out my March report. If you want to know more about draft-eligible Finnish prospects, check out my U18 World Championship Preview. And if you want to see highlight clips of these players, I suggest checking my Twitter feed @JokkeNevalainen because I frequently post short clips of SHL and Liiga prospects in there. Let’s get going.
Kärpät were the best team in the league by a wide margin during the regular season, and they also won the Liiga Championship in the playoffs. First, they got through Ässät in five games in the quarter-final series. In the semi-final series, HIFK pushed them to seven games but Kärpät prevailed. In the final series, Kärpät needed six games to get through Tappara and win the Championship. Expectations were high for Kristian Vesalainen (Jets) after a strong regular season but he was a slight disappointment in the playoffs with eight points in 18 games.
Goaltender Veini Vehviläinen was great in the playoffs where he played 17 games and won 11 of them. He allowed just 1.57 goals per game with 0.933 save percentage and had three shutouts – with the third one coming in the final game of the season. Vehviläinen is 21 years old but is still eligible for the draft for the last time – and after the season he’s had, someone probably picks him up this time around.
Tappara got through KalPa in six games in the quarter-final series and then swept TPS in the semi-final series but eventually Kärpät were just too good to beat. Tappara had won two championships in a row but couldn’t quite get their third one. Sebastian Repo (Panthers) scored seven points in 15 games whereas Henrik Haapala (Panthers) scored 10 points in 14 games.
HIFK won JYP in six games in the quarter-final series and then pushed Kärpät to seven games in the semi-final series but ultimately couldn’t quite get through the eventual champions. However, they won TPS in the bronze medal game to finish third in the playoffs. Miro Heiskanen (Stars) scored three goals and nine points in 14 games which was good for eighth in the league before the final series began. After leading the league in average ice time during the regular season, Heiskanen continued by leading the league again in the playoffs with his average of 26:16 per game. Heiskanen will likely continue his season with Team Finland at the World Championship tournament next month.
TPS won SaiPa in six games in the quarter-final series but then got swept in the semi-final series by Tappara. They also lost the bronze medal game to HIFK which means they finished fourth in the playoffs. Olli Juolevi (Canucks) improved throughout the season and it was clearly visible during the playoffs. TPS lost one important defenseman from their roster to injury, so Juolevi had to step up and play bigger minutes. His average ice time went up to 22:57 per game, and he also scored two goals and seven points in 11 games. Juolevi is also a possibility for Team Finland at the World Championship tournament.
KalPa was eliminated by Tappara in six games in the quarter-final series. Center Eetu Luostarinen (Hurricanes) had one goal and three points in six games. He played important minutes for KalPa once again with average ice time of nearly 17 minutes per game. Alexandre Texier (Blue Jackets) had one goal and two points in six games and only played about 13 minutes per game. Joni Ikonen (Canadiens) had just one assist in six games.
After beating Pelicans in the Wild Card round, SaiPa had to face TPS in the quarter-final series and they lost that series in six games. Defenseman Urho Vaakanainen (Bruins) had one assist in nine games but he played 23 minutes per game in the playoffs which is impressive for a 19-year-old defenseman. Vaakanainen is another possibility for Team Finland at the World Championship tournament but his chances of getting there are low.
U18 World Championship update
Finland got some good news on Saturday when Kärpät finally decided to let Rasmus Kupari (2018) go to the U18 Worlds. Kupari played a full regular season with Kärpät and all five games in the quarter-final series but Kärpät then loaned him to their junior team. Kupari was back up after winning silver with the junior team and played in the seventh game of the semi-final series against HIFK but then didn’t get to play any of the games in the Liiga Championship series. Kupari has now played two games at the U18 Worlds and scored one goal.
It’s not so evident when he’s playing against grown men but when Jesperi Kotkaniemi (2018) plays against his peers, you can see that he’s a big boy who can play a physical style when needed. Kotkaniemi played wing in Liiga but has been playing centre in the tournament which was expected. He’s been playing very good two-way hockey and scored six points in five games as the top centre for Finland. He was injured in the third period of the quarter-final game against Belarus but he’s apparently good to go when they face Sweden in the semi-final game on Saturday.
Niklas Nordgren (2018) has been playing left wing on Kotkaniemi’s line, and Nordgren is leading the tournament in goals with seven. He’s also added two assists to give him nine points in five games. Nordgren’s skating has been his biggest weakness but it looks better than before. He’s been using his shot more as well, and it’s becoming clear that his shot is very good.
Another elite winger on Kotkaniemi’s wing has been Kaapo Kakko (2019) who plays on the right side. Kakko has shown why he’s one of the best 2001-born players in the world by scoring eight points in five games. Finland’s top line has stuck together all five games, and it’s been perhaps the best line in the entire tournament.
One player I failed to mention in my tournament preview was centre Anton Lundell (2020) who has had a great tournament playing the third line centre role for Finland. He’s scored six points in five games, and he’s been playing excellent two-way hockey which isn’t something you often see from a 16-year-old. Lundell is a late 2001 born kid which means he isn’t eligible for the draft until 2020 but he’s looking like a top 10 selection right now. He could eventually become a dominant two-way centre in the NHL.
Defenseman Anttoni Honka (2019) has been playing a smaller role than what I expected as he’s on the third pair but is a mainstay on the top power-play unit. He’s shown his great skating ability and puck-skills but his defensive game has been worse than expected so far in the tournament.
And that’s all for now. Feel free to add comments below – all kind of feedback is welcomed. You can also find me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
All images used on the collage courtesy of Liiga.fi