MONTREAL — It’s amazing how much can change in the span of one year.
Team Finland, powered by a trio of superstars who combined for 17 goals and 44 points in Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho, took home gold at the World Junior Championship last January.
Those three players are now plying their trade in the NHL and the team they’re absent from is on the precipice of falling out of this year’s WJC before the start of the medal round, on the heels of a 3-1 loss to Team Sweden.
A loss on Boxing Day to the Czech Republic, followed by a shocking one to Denmark on Tuesday, has put Finland in this position.
The kicker: If Switzerland beats Denmark Friday, a win for Finland over the Swiss Saturday won’t mean anything for the boys in white and blue, who will then be forced to play a best-of-three series against the worst team from Group B for a chance to participate in next year’s tournament.
“This is not the way we wanted it to go,” said Finnish captain Olli Juolevi, who logged over 23 minutes and notched an assist on the opening goal in the loss to Sweden.
It’s a particularly bitter pill for Juolevi to swallow, and if the worst-case scenario for the Finns is realized by Saturday, it’ll be a nightmare ending to what was otherwise the best year of his life.
Juolevi led all defencemen at the WJC last year with nine assists and was named to the tournament’s all-star team. He then returned to the London Knights and helped them to an OHL championship and a Memorial Cup win before gracing the stage in Buffalo, N.Y., as the fifth overall selection at the NHL Draft in June.
Going from the pinnacle to the pit is a painful exercise, and one can understand Juolevi’s level of frustration with the denouement that’s brought him and the team he’s leading to the brink of elimination from this tournament.
“Of course I’m disappointed,” Juolevi said. “I don’t want to lose, ever.”
He went on to praise Finland for Thursday’s game, calling it the best one his side has played out of its first three.
“As a captain, I’m proud of my teammates,” Juolevi said, in reference to their effort following the devastating—‘embarrassing’ as he labeled it—loss to the Danes.
For Juolevi’s part, Thursday’s game was unquestionably his best of the tournament.
His assist on Aapeli Rasanen’s first-period goal was his first point, he acquitted himself well in the defensive zone by disturbing the relentless Swedish cycle with an active stick and with his head on a swivel, and his slap shot grazed the post with nine minutes left in the third period.
That shot was part of a desperate Finland attempt to chase down a 2-1 lead Sweden had built through two periods.
They out-shot the Swedes 29-20, held them to nine and registered 14 of their own in the third period, but they came up as empty as they had in their previous contests.
Worst of all, Finland had control of the game up until the halfway point, when they were enjoying a five-on-three advantage for a full 1:55.
Juolevi was the left point-man on a unit that generated five scoring chances and no goals.
“We should have scored there, it would’ve been 2-0,” he said. “But that’s hockey. There’s nothing to do about it.”
Nor is there anything for the Finnish team to do about the precarious position they now find themselves in.
“I’ll eat dinner, go to sleep, and we’ll see what happens [Friday],” said Juolevi. “Bigger miracles have happened. It’s not going to be easy, but sometimes you’re lucky.”
And if the Finns aren’t lucky, they’ll have to hope the experience—no matter how difficult it’s been—is a positive one for defencemen Miro Heiskanen and Juuso Valimaki, and for forwards Eeli Tolvanen and Kristian Vesalainen, who are all currently ranked as A-level prospects slated for first-round selections at the 2017 NHL Draft.
Those guys will hold the key to a drastic turnaround for Finland at next year’s event, provided this tournament doesn’t lead them to the most devastating result of relegation.
As long as this disaster doesn’t extend that far, they can live on the hope of how much can change in the span of 365 days.