You can never count out the Finns these days. Even when they were down in the third period to archrival Sweden and even after the potential game-tying goal was disallowed on an offside review, Finland refused to stay down. And thanks to Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Roni Hirvonen, who potted the game-winner with less than 30 seconds left in regulation, the Finns are once again off to the World Junior Championship’s semifinal.
Finland has won gold at three of the past seven tournaments and the Nordic nation wasn’t favored in any of those years. So what’s the deal? The Finns almost always look good, but not necessarily great – but then they end up on top.
“The main thing is we believe in teamwork,” said coach Antti Pennanen, who was an assistant coach when Finland won gold in 2016. “Of course we have lots of good players, but the main thing is teamwork and team effort.”
In this case, the hero of the team was Hirvonen – though credit is also due to captain and team star Anton Lundell, the Florida Panthers first-rounder who tied the game on the power play in the third period. Hirvonen, Lundell and Los Angeles Kings pick Kasper Simontaival have been the big offensive drivers for Finland and when Hirvonen pulled off his wraparound on Sweden netminder Hugo Alnefelt, the Finns were in ecstasy.
“It’s always exciting to play against the Swedes,” Hirvonen said. “It’s a different mindset.”
Hirvonen may be playing in his first world junior tournament, but the Toronto pick has looked like a veteran, picking up five points in five games.
“We have a good team and I’ve played with almost all of them before this tournament,” he said. “So I feel really comfortable.”
Hirvonen’s game has substantially improved since he was selected in the second round of the 2020 draft by the Maple Leafs, too. Last year, some scouts saw him as a smaller player who didn’t skate very well. On the other side of the ledger, Hirvonen obviously had high hockey IQ and scoring ability – but would that be enough to get him to the NHL one day?
Clearly it’s still too early to make a final assessment on the matter, but Pennanen noted that Hirvonen’s skating has improved a lot since last season and that despite being a 2002 birthday, has also been one of the leaders on this Finnish national squad.
Back home in Finland, Hirvonen is playing in his second season with Assat Pori in the Liiga. While facing older, stronger competition, the talented forward has already put up nine points in 21 games, putting him on pace for a much better showing than in his rookie campaign. That’s obviously a positive trajectory for the youngster, who will still be eligible to play at next year’s world juniors as well.
For now, however, the mission is right in front of Hirvonen and his Finnish pals: shock the hockey world again. Well, at this point it wouldn’t be a shock for Finland to win gold since the nation has made a habit of it in this tournament. They will still have to beat two powerhouse countries in order to claim that fourth gold in eight tries, but the team is willing to take on all comers, no matter who is on the schedule from here on out.
“I don’t think it matters,” said 2022 draft phenom Brad Lambert. “If we just play our game, we’ll definitely be able to beat everyone.”
The Swedes already found that out the hard way.