Vaakanainen ready, but it’s a ‘long shot’ Bruins use him for gaps on D


David Pastrnak, left, and Urho Vaakanainen of the Boston Bruins stretch during a team practice in Beijing, China, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. (Mark Schiefelbein / AP)

BOSTON — The hockey world is only just getting to know Urho Vaakanainen. Most of us are still trying to keep the vowels and consonants arranged in the correct order when typing out his name.

But an intriguing scenario exists where the engraver at Boffey Silversmith in Montreal might have to double check that spelling when the Stanley Cup arrives there later this summer.

First Vaakanainen has to suit up for the Bruins — something coach Bruce Cassidy is calling a "long shot," but not an impossibility. Then Boston must win two of its final three games against the St. Lous Blues to claim the trophy.

Vaakanainen is creeping into the conversation for Boston’s battered blue-line despite having just two games and 18 total minutes of NHL experience to his name. The 20-year-old Finn joined the main group for Wednesday’s practice at TD Garden after being part of the Black Aces for the last five weeks, essentially putting him on notice for Game 5 as Boston waits to see if either Zdeno Chara (jaw) or Matt Grzelcyk (concussion) will be cleared to play.

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Cassidy and his staff have debated the merits of inserting Vaakanainen, a left shot, if both of the other left-shot options can’t go. Understandably, they have some concerns about how he might handle that kind of assignment.

"That would be a big ask. A real big ask," said Cassidy. "But if that’s the way we’ve got to go then that’s the ask we’re going to make. Right now, like I said, that’s a long shot, that we would go that way. Especially seeing Grizz out there today, so that gives us all a little bit of confidence that he’s closer. It’s always a step in the [concussion] protocol to be out on the ice.

"If that’s what we’ve got to do, that’s what we do."

Vaakanainen would be one of the least likely players to suit up in a Stanley Cup Final in recent memory, especially since he’s a mere six months removed from winning gold at the world junior tournament in Vancouver. He could become the first player to win both in the same year, according to Sportsnet Stats.

The Bruins selected him 18th overall in 2017 — the seventh defencemen taken in that draft, behind Miro Heiskanen (No. 3, Dallas), Cale Makar (No. 4, Colorado), Cal Foote (No. 14, Tampa), Erik Brannstrom (No. 15, Vegas), Juuso Valimaki (No. 16, Calgary) and Timothy Liljegren (No. 17, Toronto).

There isn’t a whole lot of flash to Vaakanainen’s game. He’s a tough competitor and strong skater, according to Tero Lehtera, his former coach with SaiPa in the Finnish League. He’s known for surprising opponents who beat him by coming back to get the puck.

He got a small taste of NHL action when Boston ran into injuries early in the season, making his debut in Vancouver on Oct. 20 and then playing in Ottawa three nights later — where he suffered a concussion that sidelined him for two months.

"I was in a blur. I didn’t really sleep before the game so I can’t really remember anything about the game," Vaakanainen said of his NHL debut. "The second game I didn’t play that much, I just played the first period, so I don’t know if that helps at all."

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He last suited up for the AHL’s Providence Bruins on April 26 in a playoff game against Charlotte and has been skating and working out ever since just in case he was called on by the big club.

Anyone who dresses for a game in the Stanley Cup Final is guaranteed to get his name engraved on the trophy if his team wins. It doesn’t matter if you’re a recent draft pick who spent the majority of the season playing elsewhere.

Vaakanainen isn’t Cassidy’s preferred option right now — "You throw him at the end, is that fair? Can he succeed?" asked the coach — but he has to prepare like he might be playing.

There’s a high degree of unpredictability with the type of injuries Chara and Grzelcyk are nursing, and in this physical series with the forecheck-heavy Blues it’s always possible someone else goes down before Game 6 or a potential Game 7.

"If I play, I’m going to do my best," said Vaakanainen. "But I don’t know about tomorrow."

At this time of year, you never know.

Stranger things have happened.

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