The stubborn Finns refused to submit to the Americans, upsetting their hosts 4-2 Saturday in the first of two semi-finals final at Grand Forks, North Dakota, in the IIHL Under18 hockey championship tournament.
Center Aapeli Rasanen, who scored twice, potted the winning goal with 37 seconds left to thwart the two-time defending USA and move into a tie for eighth place among the tournament’s top-10 scorers.
Heading into the semi-finals, the Americans and Canadians were first or second in scoring, power-play scoring, penalty-killing and goaltending as well as trailing only Latvia in PIMs, making a Canada-USA championship matchup likely.
Until the plucky Finns rewrote the script.
There was plenty of semi-final drama in the final five minutes at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.
After earlier goals by Urho Vaakanainen for the Finns and Kieffer Bellows for the Americans, Rasanen stunned the pro-USA crowd with a shorthanded goal with just 4:49 to play. Undaunted, the high-scoring Americans drew even on a tip-in by Kailer Yamamoto just 1:22 later.
In yet another OMG moment, U.S. star Clayton Keller tripped explosive Finnish forward Jesse Puljujarvi in the U.S. end with just 1:02 showing on the clock. Smelling blood with the man advantage, Rasanen whipped in the winning goal on a rebound with a mere 37 seconds left in regulation. Puljujarvi, the 2015 tournament MVP, drove the final nail in the USA coffin with a buzzer-beating empty-netter.
The high-powered USA offense was too much for the Swedes earlier in the 2016 IIHF Under18 world championship, although Finland stunned the host Americans 4-2 in a semi-final:
Finland will face the winner of the Canada-Sweden semi-final for the gold medal Sunday. The USA, which drubbed the Czech Republic 8-0 in a quarter-final, will meet the loser of the other semi-final for bronze.
While the 4-2 result is a triumph for the shorthanded Finns (using just 18 players compared to 20 Americans), it’s a bitter pill to swallow for the Americans, who outscored their opponents 38-4 entering the semi-finals.
Maybe last year’s 2-1 OT loss to the U.S. was the rehearsal Finland needed to win a 2016 rematch in spite of top goalie Leevi Laakso being too ill to play as well as captain Juuso Valimaki.
Regardless of their disappointing team result, Americans hold the second through fifth spots among the 2016 tournament’s top scorers.
Keller, second with four goals and 11 points in six games, contributed a goal and two assists against the Czechs. Headed to Boston University, the dynamic center is a sure-fire first-rounder this year. Yamamoto is third at 10 points, while Brown is tied for fourth with Adam Fox, the tournament’s highest-pointing blueliner.
The undersized yet skilled Yamamoto is draft-eligible in 2017. Brown, a massive six-foot-six and 218-pound center, is a son of former NHL D-man Jeff Brown. He will be irresistible to NHL teams in the opening round of this year’s draft.
Harvard-bound defenseman Fox will surely be drafted this year, although likely not before the second round. Right winger Joey Anderson, another high-scoring member of the U.S. squad, is headed to the U of Minnesota-Duluth and is a likely second- or third-round pick in this year’s draft.
Lanky six-foot-four American netminder Jake Oettinger is going to Boston U next season and is not eligible for the NHL draft until 2017. Power forward Bellows is headed to Boston U and is a likely first-round pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft.
The Finns, who edged longtime rival Russia 4-3 in a quarter-final, are led by 2015 IIHF championship MVP Jesse Puljujärvi. The strapping right winger had a goal and an assist against the U-17-heavy Russians after he was pointless in an earlier 3-1 loss to Canada. Although it won’t stop him from being a high first-round pick this year, Puljujärvi is not among the top-10 IIHF scorers at the moment.
Rasanen, likely a late 2016 first-rounder or early second-rounder, is tied for sixth. Left winger Eeli Tolvanen is 10th in scoring and not draft-eligible until 2017.
Canada vs. Sweden (semi-final)
Captain Tyson Jost had three goals and two assists as the Canadians, who have earned medals at the past four IIHF U18 world championships, swamped the hapless Swiss 9-1 in a quarter-final. Seven different Swedes scored as they easily handled Slovakia 7-2 in another quarter-final.
With six goals and 14 points, crafty goal-scorer Jost has a three-point lead atop tournament scorers, and has tied Connor McDavid's single-tournament Canadian record. With two games to go, Jost is a good bet to match or surpass Auston Matthews’ 15 points in seven games a year ago, although Nikita Kucherov’s tournament-record 21 points from 2011 will be hard to reach. There’s no way Jost, who will return to the Ralph Engelstad Arena next season with the U of North Dakota, won’t be taken in 2016’s first round.
Howden, tied for sixth in IIHF tournament scoring, added two goals and three assists in the rout of Switzerland and is yet another likely first-rounder this year. Boston U-bound two-way Canadian defenseman Dante Fabbro is tied with Howden at eight points and, you guessed it, is another probable first rounder.
Alexander Nylander, son of former NHLer Michael and brother of Toronto Maple Leafs’ wunderkind William, is the lone Swede among the IIHF top-10 scorers at eight points and tied for sixth. With his bloodlines and current production, he will be extremely attractive to NHL teams seeking a future star winger.
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