Stars' Joel Kiviranta latest Finn to find spotlight after Game 7 heroics

EDMONTON — The Finns, they are a fascinating lot.

A few are extroverts, like Teemu Selanne, Jarkko Ruutu, or one of our favorites, Janne Niinimaa. Others, like Antti Niemi or a young Jari Kurri, you could interview for weeks and not make length on a sidebar.

From the Sakus to the Samis, the Teppos to the Tuukkas, some have arrived to much fanfare, like a Kaapo Kakko or Patrik Laine. Others — like Friday’s hero Joel Kiviranta — sneak in the side door.

Then, by the time the game is over, they’re sitting at the head of the table.

Kiviranta, an undrafted, unknown, 24-year-old farmhand, scored a hat trick — including the overtime winner — as the Dallas Stars eliminated the Colorado Avalanche in a Game 7 thriller. It was the first Game 7 hat trick since Wayne Gretzky versus the Maple Leafs in 1993, and one of only seven in the NHL’s Game 7 history, a feat accomplished by names like Gretzky, Keon, MacLeish and, yes, Esa Tikkanen.

So, who exactly is this Finn-derella?

“That’s a pretty good question,” Kiviranta said in the postgame interview. “How much we have time here? Where I start ... ?”

Here’s a place to start: Kiviranta, a tout from former Stars great Jere Lehtinen, got into the Stars lineup only because Andrew Cogliano — who had never missed a playoff game in his 13-year, 1,000-game career — couldn’t go.

“Nope. Good thing I didn’t tonight,” he texted from inside the bubble. “I thank the heavens (Kiviranta played). I have another chance at a Stanley Cup because of it.”

In came a kid with 13 NHL games under his belt, and one NHL goal.

“I didn’t know what to expect for this day, my first Game 7 in my life,” he said. His winner — a one-timer from the slot off a pass from defenceman Andrej Sekera, in his office behind the Avs' goal — was an “unforgettable moment.”

“How many people would have had Kiviranta from Sekera?” asked Sportsnet play by play voice Chris Cuthbert on his unlikely goal call. “It’s 2020. Anything can happen!”

The teams combined for 57 goals in this series, and you could have had your pick of Olympians and star players to notch the biggest one. Instead, it went to the undrafted kid from Vantaa, a suburb of Helsinki, who the Stars spotted at last year’s World Championships.

“There was a game in Colorado earlier in the year,” recalled Dallas head coach Rick Bowness. “We’d brought him up, and I remember Joe Pavelski tapped me on the knee and said, ‘Bones, give me Joel.’ So, the players have a tremendous amount of confidence in Kivi. He’s a great little competitor.”

From there, Bowness took over the interview:

“Is it nice to see him get rewarded with goals?” he asked. “Yes.”

“Are we surprised by that? Yes.”

“Did we expect that kind of effort? Yeah. That’s what we saw when we played him earlier in the year.”

Afterwards, Kiviranta was just hoping he’d get to play again in Round 3.

“Of course I hope I get more games. I also understand this is not about me. The closer we get, every game matters. Team, first,” he said. “This is my first year (in North America), and most of the season I played in AHL. A couple of call-ups, and I just tried to do my best.

“It’s the logo on your chest, and that’s how you play and the team you want to help.”

Across the way, an Avalanche team that had clawed back from down 3-1 simply could not summit the mountain, with an injury list that added captain Gabriel Landeskog in Game 7. They were down to their No. 3 goalie, never had minute-munching defenceman Erik Johnson, and were also without Matt Calvert and Joonas Donskoi.

“I would have liked to have seen our team fully healthy,” a dejected Nathan MacKinnon said. “We lost a lot of key guys. You can call it an excuse or whatever you want. That’s just the way it is. We lost some key guys to our team.”

In a playoff run where the hockey world began to ask if MacKinnon was better even than Connor McDavid, Game 7 was the first time in 15 playoff games that MacKinnon was held pointless. He had nine goals and 25 points, but much like McDavid, he could not outscore his club’s defensive lapses in a fire-wagon series that was 4-3 one night, and 5-4 the next.

“We just couldn’t keep the puck out of our net this series,” he lamented. “We definitely scored enough goals to win. We’ve got to do a better job in front of our goalies.”

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