Finland hitting form at right time as WJC final looms vs. U.S.

Team Finland celebrates its win over Switzerland following third period IIHF world junior semifinal hockey action in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

VANCOUVER — When you win at hockey, this is how the story so often goes.

A tournament of missed scoring chances dogged Team Finland, and they were down to their final life here in Vancouver in a Wednesday quarter-final game, trailing Canada 1-0 with less than a minute to play.

This was it. Either the big break was going to come, or the Finns were going to Helsinki in a handcart. Where was that puck to go in off a shin pad, or the seat of someone’s pants…?

Then there was the theory held by Teemu Selanne, the ultimate Finn, who would slap his hand against the bottom of an imaginary ketchup bottle while describing how this game works for goal-scorers.

“When the goals get caught up in the bottle,” he would say, “you have to keep pounding away, pounding away…”

Eventually the ketchup always flows, Teemu believed. Eventually, the goals always come.

Here at the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championship, Team Finland employed both of those hockey axioms to get where they are today: in the gold medal game, lined up against the United States after a no-contest 6-1 win over Switzerland Friday night.

“When you get that many chances, at some time you’re going to score,” said captain Aarne Talvitie, who scored twice as the Finns jumped Switzerland, leading 3-0 before the six-minute mark in Friday’s semi-final. “You just have to believe. Some guys … they’ve been waiting for it, working very hard. Today, they got rewarded.”

But before the ketchup bottle unloaded on the Swiss, the fluke goals had to come, as it turned out, at Canada’s expense. We saw them, and they were as pure as mud.

“It happened yesterday,” shrugged Eeli Tolvanen. “We have to be proud of it.”

So, this is what Vancouver gives us: A Finnish team in search of its third gold medal since 2014, against an American team that beat Russia 2-1 earlier in the day, and should be favoured.

“In tournaments like these,” said the captain Talvitie, “we are always the underdog to Canada, or the U.S.A. So it is nice to prove to everyone that we can play.”

They are a country of 5.5 million people whose boys dusted Canada on their own soil, and now take on the mighty Red, White and Blue, a country that has several states more populous than all of Finland.

For those who know the Suomi, this is only perfect.

“There is a lot of history that goes with it,” said Talvitie, a short, thick, fire-plug of a player — like Kimmo Timomen, but at forward. “We’ve always been the small country that has to fight, to give their all against bigger countries when it comes to sports.”

Or, for that matter, war.

“Yes, of course,” chuckled Talvitie. “That was a long time ago, but it kind of shows who we are. We’re the small country that shows the way.”

There was always supposed to be scoring punch from this Finnish lineup, led by Tolvanen in his third world juniors, coming from Milwaukee of the American Hockey League, and before that the Nashville Predators. Kaapo Kakko is expected to be a top-five pick in the June NHL draft; Henri Jokiharju has played 32 games on the Chicago Blackhawks blue-line this season; Aleksi Heponiemi (1-3-4 vs. the Swiss) is almost a point per game this season at Karpat, playing pro hockey back home; Rasmus Kupari (1-2-3 on Friday) went 20th overall to the L.A. Kings.

But against the best opponents here, the Finns have struggled. One goal in a loss to Sweden, one goal in a loss to the United States, a 2-1 overtime win over Canada in which they did not cleanly shoot a puck into the opposition goal…

“That’s the thing that this tournament is all about,” said head coach Jussi Ahokas. “To win the right games. I think we’re in a good way right now, to play our best game tomorrow.”

American Jack Hughes, the best draft-eligible player on the planet, awaits. And he’s not buying the underdog act.

“I mean, they have two NHL players on their team,” he said. “I mean, they have a really good team over there with a lot of good players.”

Yes, the Finns do.

And now the ketchup bottle is flowing.

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