TORONTO — Big-game performances are becoming the routine for Sudbury Wolves goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
After the 20-year-old led Finland to a victory over Canada in the quarterfinals at the world juniors in January, en route to a gold medal and being named goaltender of the tournament, he returned to Sudbury and guided the Wolves to their first playoff series victory since the 2013 season.
“World juniors went well for me and gave me the confidence to come back and play in big situations,” Luukkonen said. “I’m just trying to keep the same level of play as world juniors. Sometimes it’s hard and you’re learning, but you just try to stay positive… it’s been a good year for me.”
The Buffalo Sabres draft pick had an eight-game personal win streak down the stretch and a career-high 41-save shutout on March 9 to help Sudbury get back into the Ontario Hockey League playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the East.
And he’s taken his game up another level this past week, stopping 139-of-147 shots for a .946 save percentage in the post-season to lead Sudbury to a first-round sweep of the Mississauga Steelheads.
“Especially moving on to the pro level, the best goalies they play really well every night and it’s something I’ve been working on and something our team takes pride in, to be ready every game,” Luukkonen said.
Luukkonen isn’t the only European to be making a difference in the 2018-19 Canadian Hockey League post-season, though.
Some of the best talent from around the globe is competing to win one of the three league titles, and perhaps a Memorial Cup.
Here are five other international players from the 2019 world junior hockey championship battling for a potential CHL championship:
1. London Knights defenceman Adam Boqvist — Sweden
The 18-year-old had a disappointing finish at the world juniors, but his CHL season has made up for it. The Chicago Blackhawks prospect finished second in goals and sixth in points for OHL blue liners (20 goals, 60 points in 54 games) despite playing fewer games than anyone inside the Top 10. He recorded his first career hat trick against Windsor in Tuesday’s Game 3 win that has London up 3-0, and added one more for a four-goal game.
2. Quebec Remparts forward Philipp Kurashev — Switzerland
The 19-year-old led his nation in scoring, and to a couple huge victories, at the world juniors before falling to Russia in the bronze-medal game. He has also been Quebec’s top producer all season, leading the team with 29 goals and 65 points in 59 games and squeezing the Remparts into the post-season as the eighth seed in the East. Despite being matched up against heavily-favoured Memorial Cup host Halifax, the Blackhawks prospect scored the overtime winner in Game 2 and had his team ahead 2-1 entering Thursday’s Game 4.
3. Vancouver Giants forward Milos Roman — Slovakia
The 19-year-old slowed down his production after returning from his third world juniors appearance, but still put together a 10-game point streak to end the regular season and finished third on the Giants in points with 27 goals and 60 points in 59 games. While it’s been Vancouver’s back end that has led to the second-best record in the WHL, the Calgary Flames draft pick is the only NHL prospect among the Giants’ forwards and a major influence at both ends of the rink. His squad is tied 2-2 with Seattle in their first-round series.
4. Medicine Hat Tigers goaltender Mads Sogaard — Denmark
The 18-year-old had a disastrous world juniors experience as his country lost every game and was relegated down a division for 2020. But the NHL draft-eligible netminder returned to Medicine Hat and pushed the club into the WHL playoffs, and has won the Tigers two of their first four games against heavily-favoured Edmonton for a 2-2 split. He stopped 49-of-50 shots in a Game 1 victory on the road, and then had a 32-save shutout in Game 3 at home.
5. Sudbury Wolves forward Adam Ruzicka — Slovakia
After two seasons with Sarnia and a third straight year participating at the world juniors, the 19-year-old forward was acquired in January via trade by Sudbury for its playoff push and has lived up to expectations. The Flames prospect scored 24 goals in 30 games down the stretch with the Wolves, and had four assists in his club’s four-game sweep of the Steelheads.
(This list excludes American-born skaters because they are not considered import players in the CHL.)
NOTES: The Rimouski Oceanic were the first team to advance to the second round of the QMJHL playoffs, sweeping the Chicoutimi Sagueens on Wednesday. In the OHL, the Ottawa 67’s beat the Hamilton Bulldogs in four straight to join Sudbury in the second round. Meanwhile, the Prince Albert Raiders and Saskatoon Blades took their first-round sets in four games to move on in the Western Hockey League post-season.