Tuesday, 21 May 2019

NRHC - Durham Dragons vs Whitley Bay Islanders 1-8 - Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Whitley Bay Islanders were back to their devastating best on Sunday in their latest rivalry game with the Durham Dragons. The two sides met just three weeks earlier with them sharing the spoils in an eight-goal thriller, but this time there would be no let-up in what was a strong performance by the Islanders as they put down a marker for their title aspirations this season.

Within the first 30 seconds of the puck dropping, the Islanders, who were the designated away team for this game, showed their intent when Liam Telfer flew down the right wing and got a shot on target after line mate Bobby Bradley had set him away.
However, that early momentum seemed to be put on hold when Bradley was given a penalty for High Sticks seconds later, giving an early powerplay opportunity to the Dragons. The Islanders were able to kill that off well and as the penalty ended Bradley charged straight out of the box and collected a long stretch pass on the Durham blue line. He impressively got his shot away despite being held back by a Dragons defenseman but couldn’t find the back of the net.

Liam Telfer was awarded Man-of-the Match and it was no surprise really, given how prominent he was in this game. He wound up a shot from out on the left wing with just four minutes on the clock but for the time being the game remained scoreless. It wasn’t just Whitley, or Telfer, that had chances to open the scoring. Durham had several of their own but came up against a goalie in Antony Markham who was having one of his best games since he played for the Warriors. Ginge as he is known by his teammatesproduced a smart kick save on three separate occasions early on to keep his side in it. But at 11:15 of the first period the Islanders finally got their breakthrough. Ben Buckley finishing a pass from Liam Brown to give the visitors the lead.

Durham used that as a wakeup call and went looking for an equaliser immediately. A couple of minutes after falling behind, James Udell flashed wide straight from a face off after an icing call on the Islanders had them pegged back in their own zone.
Back came the Islanders with a couple of chances to double their lead before the break. Liam Brown snatched at a shot from out on the left wing, pulling it wide of the net, then a minute later a fast-paced breakout saw Richard Crowe send a great pass to Paul Johnson, but the latter couldn’t connect.

Having rode that particular storm, back came Durham as they started to turn up the pressure on the Islanders goal. However, they were starting to find Markham in near unbeatable form as the Whitley netminder managed to stop four shots in a little over 30 seconds of play. There was a great first stop from Brad Armitage, then he had to react quickly to twist whilst prone on the deck to stop Mark Foster who was hoping to crash home the rebound, then a third shot came in from Ian Greenwood as Durham were queuingup to put the puck home. A fourth shot from the point was then gloved by the Ginger Ninja between the pipes to restore his sides one goal advantage.

Durham were then given a great opportunity to tie the game when they found themselves on a 5-on-3 powerplay, but it was the Islanders who came closest to scoring with a shorthandedmarker when Bobby Bradley closed in on goal,but his shot was saved by Davies. Durham responded a few seconds later and did actually beat Markham but the puck hit the post and came back out. Moments later Ian Spraggon had a shot saved by Ginge twice in ten seconds as following his initial effort the puck cycled back round to him only to find himself stonewalled for a second time.

With the Islanders back to four skaters the pressure had eased slightly, but with 20 seconds of the second penalty left to kill, James Udellshot from distance on the left wing to tie the game.

The Islanders came straight back at the start of the second period and never gave the Dragons time to settle. Ben Buckley had his shot from right on the doorstep saved, before Liam Brown had an effort stopped 30 seconds later. 

Whitley didn’t have to wait long to re-take the lead though. At 22:48, Steven Stocks and Ross Tomlinson combined to set up Stephen Brown, whose shot from the left wing beat Davies to make it 2-1.

Durham would have to try to tie the game up again and nearly did so a couple of minutes later but another great save from Markham restored his side’s lead. It would be a crucial moment in the game as not long after that Liam Telfer swept home at the back post from the left wing after collecting a great pass from Bradley to make 3-1. And just 29 seconds later it would be four. Ross Trail collected a pass from Ben Buckley with his back to goal and somehow tipped it, over his own shoulder as he turned to deceive Davies in the Dragons net.

Towards the end of the middle session a rare Islanders powerplay saw Stu Tomlinson advance forward from the blue line, only to be hauled down by a Dragons defenseman. However, he was still able to play the puck while on the deck and swept home to make it 5-1. Davies was furious with the defending in front of him and you could sense the frustration starting to creep into the Dragons team by now. Indeed, it might very well have been 6-1 just a few seconds later when Telfer attempted to stab home at the back post but couldn’t direct his shot beyond Davies.

The third period started in much the same way as the previous one had ended and that was with the Islanders creating chance after chance. Bobby Bradley shot from the left-wing position forcing a good full length stop from Davies then just moments later the Islanders scored again. Liam Brown collected a pass from Craig Thompson straight from a faceoff and the speed of his snapshot beat Davies. The Islanders very nearly got a seventh seconds later and would have had it not been for another good save from Davies.

Durham still gave it a go though and with around twelve minutes left looked like they had created a chance to score. But as they entered the Islanders zone a great poke check by Stu Tomlinson cut the danger out immediately. 

With just over ten minutes to go the Islanders scored twice in twelve seconds. David Cowey got the first when he fired top shelf over Davies’ left shoulder for 7-1, then Ross Trail poked a loose puck underneath Davies, when played through 1-on-1 by Liam Telfer, whose pass split the Dragons defense to make it 8-1.

There would be no further goals for either team but that didn’t mean the Islanders would stop creating good chances. 

A rink-wide pass from the Islanders zone picked out Liam Brown on the left wing but he couldn’t apply the finish. He would receive a two-minutepenalty for roughing just seconds later and a ten minute misconduct which ended a frustrating game for him early. 

Durham might even have cut the arrears with a couple of minutes to go but Markham who was putting on a goaltending masterclass slid to his right to stop a shot from distance. After making the save he looked behind him just to check the puck hadn’t crept through his body and gone in.

With thirteen seconds left the Islanders were still creating chances. Bobby Bradley had a chance to score at the end, but the puck just got away from him before he could fire home.

Liam Telfer got a deserved Man-of-the Match along with Ian Spraggon for the Dragons. However, a special mention should be made to both goaltenders, Craig Davies faced and stopped a number of shots and without him playing to the level he did the scoreline would have been even larger. 

Antony Markham has always been a well-respected goalie, ever since he first wore the Maroon and Gold jersey of the Whitley Warriors, so a performance like that from him was nothing new. However, the sheer number of saves he made and the way he stopped them was extraordinary. It certainly brought back memories of the 1999 B&H Cup when he was named player of the month in the competition after staring against sides playing two levels above him. On this evidence Ginge could be playing for many more years to come.

Stu Tomlinson was another who deserves a mention playing alongside Kevin Bucas certainly seemed to give him confidence and he put in a great performance on the top defensive pairing.

A great performance from start to finish from the Islanders, and the scary thing about this for their opponents? Simon Leach was missing from the line-up. Imagine what this team will be like when he returns.

Islanders Lines

22 Wafer – 25 Bradley – 3 Telfer
13 Buckley – 88 Thompson – 44 L. Brown
23 S. Brown – 73 Cowey – 19 Johnson

71 S. Tomlinson – 36 Bucas
17 R. Tomlinson – 16 Stocks
55 Laidler – 32 Willis

Friday, 3 May 2019

NRHC - Whitley Bay Islanders v Durham Dragons 4-4 Sunday, April 28, 2019

Simon Leach put in a Man of the Match display on his Rec League debut to help the Whitley Bay Islanders collect their first point of the season, in front of a large crowd at Hillheads.
Leach, who spent most of his illustrious career in the British game with hometown team Whitley Warriors, put on a passing master class in what was his first Whitley v Durham game since the now defunct Durham Wasps last played the Warriors in 1996.
Games between the Islanders and Dragons are often tight affairs and this one was no different with the Islanders looking fired up from the first puck drop. In fact, they would draw first blood just 18 seconds in when Liam Telfer beat Craig Davies in the Durham goal on the blocker side to make it 1-0.
Any thoughts that the Islanders were going to stroll off into the distance were quickly quashed when Durham tied it up a little over a minute later. Kieran Atkinson crashing the net and bundling home the equaliser after Drew Forester made the initial save from Ian Greenwood but couldn’t hold the rebound.
With Leach shaking off any rust that might have been lingering following a few years out of the game due to injury and operations, he showed just how fast his hockey brain was still working. With the Islanders on the Penalty Kill, Leach was sharp enough to pounce on a loose puck, collecting and unleashing a fierce drive all in one action. What was most impressive was the way he read the play, knowing the puck was going to become loose and then his reaction to get to it before anybody else. His brain was two seconds ahead of anybody else. He then had a second opportunity moments later but was foiled by Davies on both occasions.
Durham then took their first lead of the game at 17:14 when Atkinson found Brad Armitage whose initial shot was saved by Forester, but Latvian Winger Sergejvs Kvasys was on hand to fire home the rebound to make it 2-1 Durham.
However, just like the Dragons did at the start of the period, the Islanders tied things up less than two minutes later. Paul ‘Chief’ Willis firing home a rocket of a shot following good build up play from Ben Buckley and Telfer, to level the scores at 2-2.
The opening period was full of action with two goals for each side and both teams also taking the lead. The second period would follow the same pattern.
Durham retook the lead at 23:31 through John Shreeve to make it 2-3 and at this stage the Dragons looked to be the side in the ascendency. They seemed to have an answer for everything the Islanders threw at them including a great double save by Davies. The Dragons goalie made an impressive save initially then had to twist and contort himself to stop the follow up shot. The Islanders looked in disbelief when the near certain goal hadn’t gone in.
Having just passed the mid-point of the game, Whitley Bay still had plenty of time to tie things up, but in a contest as tight as this you must take your opportunities when they come. But cometh the hour, cometh the man and that was the cue for Leach to take control of the game.
His link up play with Craig Thompson and Liam Brown was starting to come together nicely, and in a play making role out on the Left Wing he was connecting with some impressive rink wide passes to the latter. However, at 31:40 it would be Brown who would return the favour to his more experienced line mate.
Kevin Bucas picked out Brown, who in turn spotted Leach open on the Left Wing. Brown slipped a perfectly weighted pass into Leach’s path for him to wind up and one-time a perfect shot into the far corner of the net to tie the game at 3-3 and giving Davies no chance at stopping that one.
The Islanders now seemed to raise their game; Leach’s goal was the perfect confidence boost they needed, and that was evident at 36:51 when they took their second lead of the game. Richard Crowe received a pass from Ross Trail at the back post and he simply had to walk it in as Davies was beaten all ends up, to make it 4-3.
But in a game that was ebbing and flowing from one side to the next it really should have come as no surprise when Durham tied things up again before the end of the second period. Both sides were reduced to four skaters with coincidental minors [Ben Buckley for high-sticking and Sean Croft for a Cross-check] at 38:05.
Moments later the Islanders get another penalty this time Stephen Laidler goes off for hooking, giving the Dragons a 4-on-3 Powerplay. Straight from the ensuing faceoff Greenwood wins the draw and gets it back to Ian Spraggon who in turn finds Armitage, who fired home top shelf from the point to make it 4-4. The extra penalties Whitley Bay had accrued, finally taking their toll after four straight Penalty Kills.
No further goals arrived in the final period and indeed things seemed to calm down somewhat. The Islanders didn’t take any further penalties either, but there was still a considerable pace to the game. The final twenty minutes getting completed much sooner than either of the first two sessions. The closest either side came to winning it, was at 58:59 when Leach went agonisingly close but for another excellent stop by Davies.
So, spoils shared in the first derby of the season, and both sides are due to meet again in 3 weeks’ time. With the Newcastle Predators and Cleveland Comets in the North Conference (along with Kingston Cobras), the local rivalries will be coming thick and fast this season.
An impressively large crowd was in attendance at Whitley Bay Ice Rink for the game. Whilst no numbers were announced it was visibly clear that there were more fans there than many NIHL teams get.
This was the first time the Islanders and Dragons have met in a competitive fixture since the Summer Cup Playoffs at iceSheffield in August 2017.
With the demise of the Summer Cup Competition both sides found it hard to play games on a regular basis throughout 2018. However, that didn’t stop Durham from cleaning up throughout various tournaments last year [Dumfries & Kingston].
The Islanders did compete in the Sheffield Rec Fest and won that last season, but it was very much a quiet year for a side that won all before them in 2017.
With this season’s Northern Rec Cup expanding to Ten teams that has allowed both the Islanders and Dragons to continue their rivalry and enjoy regular competitive action. There are some familiar faces too. Both sides used to compete in the old Summer Cup competition alongside Cleveland Comets and Kingston Cobras.
This was officially the Islanders second Cup game this campaign. However, their 10-2 reverse at Grimsby has now been expunged following the Lightning’s announcement that they had to withdraw from the competition. That is a great shame for a side that won the regular season competition last year before bowing out in the playoff semi-finals to Don Valley Vikings. Cleveland Comets were subsequently announced as the eleventh-hour replacements, meaning the Islanders’ heavy loss on Humberside has been erased and they go again with a fresh start.
This was the first game to ‘count’ in the North Conference of The HockeyJam.co.ukNorthern Rec Hockey Cup but in the South Conference Seven games have already been played and it’s starting to take shape.
Last seasons champions Peterborough Dynamo have completed their home schedule with a 3-1 record, with wins over Don Valley, Shropshire and Altrincham Jets. They have lost home and away to Sheffield Ice Tigers who find themselves unbeaten at the top of the standings having won three games overall. Shropshire Huskies who were only formed at the end of last year are the only other side to have claimed a win this season, beating Altrincham 10-3. While last season’s beaten playoff finalists Don Valley Vikings haven’t played since their heavy defeat to Peterborough back in January.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Liiga Goes To Tallinna - Part 2 - Pelicans Lahti vs SaiPa - 2019

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A lot has changed in Lahti since I last watched the Pelicans in action against Assat in late February 2018. As you come to expect a lot of players leave and are replaced but perhaps the biggest loss was always going to be that of leading scorer, Iikka Kangasniemi who had been rumoured to be leaving Lahti over the previous couple of seasons.

He eventually did leave over the summer, signing for HIFK, but if there were concerns his golden helmet couldn’t be filled, think again. Czech winger Hynek Zohorna who arrived from HC Kometo Brno in his homeland has more than replaced the diminutive Kangasniemi this season, scoring goals for fun. Not least with his heroics in Tallinna, but more of that later.

Other notable forwards to depart were Aleksi Rekonen who signed with Assat Pori, Kimi Koivisto (KooKoo) and Fourth line Left Wing Joonas Alanne who is now icing in the Asia League, while Russian Right Wing Vadim Pereskokov opted to return to the KHL mid-season, last year.

With gaps on the roster it forced new coach Ville Nieminen into changing the line up slightly. Aleksi Mustonen now centers the top line with Zohorna and Jesse Saarinen, while local favourite Hannes Bjorninen now finds himself between Jesse Mankinen and youngster Severi Lahtinen.

Experienced pair Antti Tyrvainen and Miska Siikonen are tasked with helping Arizona-born youngster Jesse Ylonen to hone his skills in Finland. That, however, may not be required, with the Youngster making headlines all on his own.

Ylonen scored a great goal in the World Junior Finals recently for Finland against the country of his birth helping his side to claim the Gold Medal and has looked impressive throughout the campaign for the Pelicans too. Ylonen’s dad Juha was an NHL veteran, spending time with the Phoenix Coyotes and Ottawa Senators and there is absolutely no reason why Jesse can’t repeat those accomplishments, judging on his performances so far.

The fourth line does have a familiar look to it though, with Taavi Vartiainen and Roope Elimaki still with the team. However, with Alanne having left that has opened up spaces for the likes of youngster Artturi Toivola and new signing Mikko Laine.
Roope Makitalo, Niklas Salo, Sakke Hamaleinen and Walter Merela are all new forwards for this season too.
You could say subtle changes have taken place amongst the forward units, but wholesale ones have taken place on the blue line, with a much more youthful look to it.
Of the many blueliners to depart, Dane Stefan Lassen moved to the Swedish Second tier, Allsvenskan, while the Czech, Libor Sulak got a crack at plying his trade in the AHL. Alex Lindroos is now with JYP, while Juha Leimu, who holds the Record for the ‘Fastest Hat Trick in Liiga’ signed with Ilves and Roni Rukajarvi dropped down to play in the Swedish First Division. Jordan Rowley initially opted to play in the EBEL, but he has since returned to Lahti just this week although not soon enough to take part in Tallinna.
That has meant a very different looking set of defensive pairings to the ones I saw last season. 19-year-old newcomer, Santtu Kinnunen is often partnered with the more experienced Mikko Kousa on the top pairing. Kousa has been with the Pelicans a while now so is considered the leader on the blue line, (mainly because he is a rarity in that he has been with the team longer than the past two seasons). Jarkko Pynnonen and Oliwer Kaski are not much older than Kinnunen and are only in their early twenties themselves, but despite this being their first season with the Pelicans have formed a good partnership on the second pairing. Aleksi Ek who only has one season of senior hockey under his belt is another young defenseman and he teams up with the more experienced Swede Henrik Nilsson, himself a new signing this summer. While, Aapo Ahola (19) is usually the seventh defensemen. Missing on defense from the game in Tallinna was 21-year-old Russian Alexander Shchemerov who hails from Yekaterinburg and at 25 the veteran Mikhail Teppo.
Both goalies have both changed since last year too. Janne Juvonen now plays in the Swedish Hockey League, while the youngster Joona Voutilainen looks to fulfil his promise with JYP now. In their place has arrived Juho Olkinuora (coming the other way from JYP) who is the new starting goalie and Czech back-up, Jakub Skarek.
As mentioned above the Pelicans are now coached by Ville Nieminen, replacing Petri Matikainen who had been behind the Pelicans bench the previous three seasons. Nieminen though is someone who is a big name in hockey. During his playing career he spent several seasons in the NHL, most notably with some of my favourite sides, Pittsburgh, Chicago, San Jose and St Louis.
Born in Tampere, Nieminen started his NHL career with the Colorado Avalanche, back when they were a powerhouse in the game, but his most successful stint was with the Calgary Flames as he helped the side reach the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals, playing in every post season game during that campaign.
The previous two seasons have seen Nieminen coach Jukurit, helping the Mikkeli-based side to establish themselves in the top flight since earning promotion to Liiga in 2016.
With the new look side assembled and myself becoming more familiar with them, it was time to take in a game this season.
The annual trip to Tallinna has quickly became the highlight of the season for the Pelican’s fans and edition two of this initial three-year deal didn’t disappoint. The Pelicans were looking to put last season’s defeat to local rivals HPK behind them, but they had to come from behind to do so.
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A crowd of 4,860 spectators were in attendance at Tallinn’s Tondiraba Arena to see Pelicans Lahti take on SaiPa Lappeenranta, in what was only the second such occasion a Liiga game had been played in Estonia.
The two sides had met just 24 hours earlier in Lappeenranta, with Pelicans surrendering a two-goal lead to eventually lose 3-2. With that in mind some thought this might be a tense and tight affair but instead it was a game played to the level of a playoff contest such was the intensity.
SaiPa looked like getting the early breakthrough when one of their players was left completely unmarked in front of goal following a pass through the middle, but the shot was lifted a bit too high over Pelicans goalie Jussi Olkinuora and hit the bar.
Pelicans seemed unable to get their usual flowing game going and it should have come to nobody’s surprise when SaiPa scored.
With Hynek Zohorna serving a penalty for tripping, SaiPa used the opportunity to take an early lead. Kalle Maalahti passed the puck out to Ahti Oksanen on the Right Wing from the point, Oksanen then sent the puck towards the crease where Jon Nikko stabbed away at it before it became loose at the back post for Cody Kunyk to scramble home at 8:15 of the first period.
Santeri Virtanen Could have made it two for SaiPa, after some great puck possession saw him escape the clutches of Severi Lahtinen to put a shot on net.
Eventually, Pelicans did respond after giving up that goal, but Frans Tuohimaa in the SaiPa net stood in their way, stopping one good effort from a hard shot, and commanding his crease well overall.
Early in the second period Pelicans were back on level terms. A fast break out of their own zone saw Jesse Saarinen play it out wide to Zohorna on the Right Wing. Zohorna then cut inside before sending a back handed pass out to the left for the on-rushing Santtu Kinnunen to one-time a shot in a sweet sweeping motion, beating Frans Tuohimaa on the near side in the SaiPa goal.

The major talking point of the game came at 28:42 when Vladimir Denisov received a 5 plus game penalty for kneeing Miska Siikonen. However, despite the Pelicans having a five-minute powerplay they were unable to take advantage and break the deadlock. Their best opportunity came with a lovely flowing move which saw the Pelicans break out the zone fast once again with slick one-time passing between, Antti Tyrvainen, Jesse Ylonen and Siikonen, but the latter’s shot could only find Tuohimaa’s glove. Thankfully Siikonen showed no lasting effects of that nasty clash to play a part in his sides best chance with the man advantage.
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Pelicans took their first lead of the game at 47:25 when Santtu Kinnunen banked a pass of the boards to find Jesse Saarinen out on the left wing. Saarinen then cut inside towards goal and went around Markus Kojo as if he wasn’t there before deceiving Jere Sneck by going forehand to backhand and then back to forehand again before unleashing a shot which beat Tuohimaa on his near side over the shoulder for a beautiful goal.
However, the celebrations had barely began when straight from the resulting face-off Joni Nikko forced a turn over at center ice and slipped a pass through to Tyler Morley. SaiPa’s leading scorer drilled a low shot from the left which found its way into the bottom corner of Pelican’s net to square things up again. The two goals arriving just nine seconds apart. Indeed, the usual ‘Pelicans on Ykkonen’ chant which follows every goal, didn’t even have time to start until well after SaiPa had equalised.
There was a lengthy delay when Aapo Ahola got put through the plexi-glass, shoulder first, by Cody Kunyk which meant we had to wait for the panel to be replaced. The players were ordered off the ice and back to their dressing rooms while the work could be carried out and then the Zamboni had to resurface that area to ensure no glass remained on the ice.
With no further goals in regulation, we headed to 3-on-3 overtime where the Pelicans looked determined to settle the contest there and then. The ‘home’ side looked much the better team during the extra session and really took the game to SaiPa. The team from Lappeenranta appeared to be hanging on for dear life at this stage and almost looked relieved when the buzzer sounded, to signal penalty shots.

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Jesse Ylonen was first to go for Pelicans, but he was unable to find a way past Frans Tuohimaa in the SaiPa net. Ahti Oksanen, who was SaiPa’s first shooter, didn’t have the same problem though as he slotted his effort past Juho Olkinuora.
Oliwer Kaski and Elmeri Kaksonen both missed their efforts for their respective sides, meaning it was all on Hynek Zohorna. Miss and it would be a second straight loss on Estonian ice for the Pelicans, score and it would place the pressure firmly on SaiPa’s next shooter.
The man with the golden helmet had no trouble as he fired passed Tuohimaa to the delight of the screaming Pelicans fans behind the goal. Still though if SaiPa scored their third and final shot then they would still win the game. However, Joni Nikko was unable to beat Okinuora meaning we would head into sudden death.
After each side has taken three shots the penalty takers change order, so where Pelicans had gone first for the opening three attempts, now SaiPa would have to shoot first. This would happen after every three rounds so could alternate as many times as it takes to find a winner. It also meant that now a team could have any player take a shot. The first three attempts all must be different players but from the fourth round of shots onwards, you can name the same player to take every shot if you so wish. SaiPa opted to go with their successful penalty scorer from round 1, Ahti Oksanen, but he couldn’t repeat his effort from earlier, firing his shot wide of Okinuora’s right post meaning Pelicans now had a chance to win it.
Like SaiPa, Pelicans opted to go with their sole successful scorer, meaning Zohorna was going to be shooting again. The Czech repeated his effort, with the same outcome, drifting right before toying with Tuohimaa, like a cat playing with a mouse, waiting for him to make the first move. The Czech sniper then deked to the right before taking the puck around the left of the goalie and cutting onto his backhand to slip the winning goal home (Scoring with two identical backhand shots) and spark jubilation in the Pelicans Fan section behind the goal. The post-game celebrations lasted for over 20 minutes as the fans and players united as one in the team’s success.
<p>Kuva: Tomi Natri <br></p>
Having lost in a shoot-out last year, some of the wrongs against HPK were corrected this time against SaiPa meaning the fans who had travelled from Lahti (and two from Newcastle) could celebrate long into the night.
It’s moments like these that remind you just how great the game of hockey is, two Finnish teams playing a Liiga game in Estonia with over 4,000 fans travelling from Lahti to witness their side win. But the occasion is much bigger than the points collected and for those travelling fans it means everything.
I have said it many times before but for me Finland has the best sports fans in the world. I have been fortunate enough to witness Finns support Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen at Formula 1 events and been impressed with the fun they have whilst doing so. It is the same with hockey. I have watched hockey all over the world but no where can match the passion and fan culture that the Finns have. And although I am perhaps a little biased, the Pelicans have the best fans in Finland.

I first visited Finland a couple of years ago to watch five games of hockey. I assumed being based in Helsinki would be a smart move and make it easy to watch teams from the capital or places that are an easy enough commute from there (Tampere, Lahti etc.). Game two of the trip took place in Lahti and having witnessed my first game there I instantly fell in love with the team. My final game of the trip was supposed to take place in Espoo to watch a contest in the Mestis League but having realised Pelicans would be playing KooKoo in Kouvola I quickly changed my plans and headed there instead. It was one of the smartest moves I would ever make as I made some great friends that day, who make trips like this so memorable.
This year my friend Keith came on the trip and he remarked at how great the Pelicans fans were before, during and after the game and how it’s like nothing we are used to experiencing in England. That’s the thing with watching Pelicans games, once you have seen one you are hooked for life, and they now have two fans from across the North Sea cheering them on. We now just can’t wait for Tallinna Part 3 next year!

Line Ups

World Juniors - Finland Wins Gold

Related imageWith three gold medals in the past six seasons, Finland is staking claim to elite status at the world juniors and a combination of talent and trust is making it happen. We also may have a bit of a 2019 draft debate on our hands.

This is getting to be a bit of a habit. Finland won its third world juniors in six years, beating Team USA 3-2 in a whirlwind game that saw 2019 draft prospect Kappo Kakko net the winner at the side of the net with a minute and a half to go in regulation. Though expectations weren’t high for Finland coming into the tournament (though getting defensemen Henri Jokiharju and Urho Vaakanainen from the NHL was a big boost), this team isn’t interested in being underdogs anymore – even if coach Jussi Ahokas has used the term with the media.
“The big thing for us was to win it in a small rink,” Ahokas said. “We hadn’t done that before and now we’ve done it. That’s big for Finnish hockey. Of course, you always need great players, but it was how we got together, how the team worked, how well our leaders played. We were really tight.”
Finland has been perplexing during their great run; if they don’t win gold, they don’t even come close and in 2017, the team had to play in the relegation series, collapsing one year after winning gold. For Jokiharju, there isn’t much mystery to unravel.
“Win the right games, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “The trust never fell with our team. The group games weren’t that good, but who cares? We won the right games – first Canada, then Switzerland, now USA. We’re the best in the world.”
Indeed, Finland lost to the Americans in the group stage, and to the Swedes, but there was an underlying confidence that crested at the right time – namely, the quarterfinal shocker over Canada. The seeds for that upset had been planted in exhibition play, when Finland beat Canada, however.
“We got the confidence when we played the pre-tournament game here against Canada,” said defenseman Oskari Laaksonen. “Everybody opened up, like ‘OK, we can beat the Canadian team, we can beat anybody.’ The group stage was pretty tough for us, we just charged to the Canada game and it was flow after that, everybody was working hard.”
Most important in the gold-medal game was Finland’s willingness and ability to match the speed and physicality of the Americans. Team USA did a great job confounding Russia in the semis, but the Finns were prepared for their final assignment.
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“Playing the US and Canada, those North American teams play so fast,” Jokiharju said. “You have to match the pace and be even faster.”
It also helped that Finland got a balanced effort from its forward group. Of course, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was tremendous in net, but it would all have been for nothing had Kakko not popped in his own rebound for the game-winner. Kakko, who now opens up a serious debate over whether he or incumbent Jack Hughes should go first overall in the 2019 draft (which will be held in Vancouver, coincidentally), was particularly good all night and had a meaty role on the team’s second line. While Canada searches for answers as to where things went wrong, it’s hard not to look at the play of Kakko and 2020 draft prospect Anton Lundell as an argument for upside over age.
“We let him play,” Ahokas said. “He had the confidence, we gave him the role and that was the biggest thing. He’s a future superstar.”
And like another Finnish star, Patrik Laine, Kakko already has a gold medal from the world juniors. He’ll return to TPS Turku in Finland’s top league now, but it’s fair to say he already has his signature game for the season.
“It’s an incredible feeling to get that kind of goal,” Kakko said.
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Toni Utunen and Aarne Talvitie celebrate

 Perhaps Finland's biggest win was at the Quarter Final stage against the hosts and favourites, Canada. But Canada found out the hard way in the quarterfinal, that by playing tight defensive hockey doesn't work with modern day speed players, losing to Finland in overtime 2-1 in a game that saw the Canadians take just 24 shots on net.
While this may not have been the most talented Canadian entry at the world juniors, this team should have gone further – the depth up front was solid and there was plenty of skill on the blueline, but particularly against Finland, that skill didn’t seem to be sprung.
There were exceptions, of course: Ian Mitchell got Canada’s only goal when he jumped up and took a Barrett Hayton feed in the second period. And, crushingly, Noah Dobson had a huge chance at the side of the net in overtime, only to have his stick snap in his hands. Otherwise, there was a lot of chipping the puck out of their own zone, which was disheartening to see, given how well players like Dobson, Mitchell and Ty Smith can skate with the puck.
“I guess it just kinda happened,” Mitchell said. “We had a pretty skilled group back there. After that first goal, I don’t know if we pulled up a bit, or what it was. Maybe there wasn’t a lot of positions to jump; I’m not sure.”
Give full marks to Finland for playing a solid game: they outshot Canada on home ice and got a huge performance in net from Buffalo Sabres pick Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. And a ‘D’ corps led by NHLers Henri Jokiharju (Chicago) and Urho Vaakanainen (Boston) kept the dangerous Canadians at bay.
“They’re a good checking team,” Mitchell said. “They were keeping us to the outside, we didn’t get a lot of inside looks. Their gaps were tight and they were tight in their ‘D’ zone coverage, too.”
But Canada should have won this game. Even without the bad luck of Dobson’s stick breaking, even without Maxime Comtois’ failed penalty shot, this was a winnable game. The Canadians just couldn’t get enough pressure to crack the Finns and they had the talent to do it.
I believe they played too safe. Owen Tippett (Florida) was aggressive in his rushes, but he didn’t have a lot of company. Chip-and-chase hockey is dead and while it’s not a sexy storyline, coaching matters a ton in this tournament and Canada didn’t get any. Most disappointingly, coach Tim Hunter didn’t want to address these faults after the game. For example, Canada scored just once in the New Year’s Eve loss to Russia and once against the Finns. Could he think of anything the team could have done differently on offense?
“I wish I could,” he said. “I’m not going to reflect on what went wrong. That’s over, we’re moving on.”
Well, no, you’re not: Canada’s tournament is over. When asked about the lack of defensive activation, he cited Dobson’s chance in overtime and left it at that. Where’s the accountability here? Comtois – who was a bewildering candidate for that penalty was shot – stood in front of the media forever, answering questions in both English and French. Michael DiPietro, who was great in net, didn’t shy away from the press, either. They’re the teenagers, Hunter is the adult, let’s not forget.
In the end, Finland went on to meet Switzerland in a surprising semifinal matchup. The Finns overcame adversity in the game and used the penalty-kill as motivation.
“We killed those penalties really well and, in those moments, we turned it around,” Jokiharju said. “We stick together all the time on the ice and it was a huge win for us.”
The fact Nashville’s Eeli Tolvanen set up the tying goal after a slow offensive start to his tournament was huge for Finland and Tolvanen was excellent all game. The Finns believed they hadn’t been getting the bounces early in the world juniors, but they got them against Canada. The fact they cashed in two of them – with Vancouver prospect Toni Utunen getting the overtime winner on a shot that hit Cody Glass’ stick – was the difference in the game.
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Kaapo Kakko
While the Finns are focused on the present at the world juniors, the play of right winger Kaapo Kakko has also offered a tantalizing view of the future. Of course, based on his trajectory, the 2019 draft prospect may not be available for the next world juniors – his NHL team may want him their lineup instead.
This has always been the Jack Hughes draft, but Kakko, who first came onto the radar at last year’s world under-18s, is looking like a very strong No. 2.
“Kaapo is a skilled player,” said Finland coach Jussi Ahokas. “Really good in the corners, sees the game really well, passes well and he’s got really good character. He’s going to be a great NHL player, he has all the capacity.”
In the win over Canada in the quarterfinal, Kakko’s line with Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville) and center Anton Lundell (a 2020 draft prospect due to a late birthday) was very effective and had some dominant possession shifts. It will be fun to see what that trio can produce in the semifinal against Switzerland, as the spotlight will undoubtedly get brighter.
The question now becomes one of potential. Because of his smarts and size, Kakko could easily be a center in the NHL and he has begun to play down the middle with TPS Turku in the Liiga. At the world juniors, he’s been back on right wing and that’s fine by him for now.
“I feel more comfortable on the wing but I can play center,” Kakko said through translator and teammate Aarne Talvitie. “I think I get more offensive opportunities as a winger, so in this tournament I like it more on the wing.”
But a big winger that can play center? It sounds like the Jesperi Kotkaniemi story from 2018, when Montreal grabbed that Finnish kid third overall. On the other hand, Kakko – who played on Kotkaniemi’s wing at the world under-18s last year – has even more offensive potential than his buddy. Consider this: at the same age, Kakko is putting up better offensive numbers in Finland’s top league than Patrik Laine did in his draft year. Now, is that a lot to put on a kid? Perhaps, but let’s not forget that Laine was once an unknown as well. Kakko himself is looking at the big picture.
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“Of course it’s a good thing,” he said. “Points don’t mean everything and there’s still a long way to go, but I’m proud of myself. I’ve been playing well and got into the team pretty quickly. I’m familiar with the guys and how they play, so it’s been good so far.”
Growing up in Turku, Kakko would go to TPS games and watch players like future Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and Colorado star Mikko Rantanen, the latter of whom has been a model for Kakko thanks to the way the Avs right winger protects the puck. But Kakko’s No. 1 fave right now is Toronto’s Auston Matthews.
“He’s a good stickhandler, good with the puck, a great offensive player and especially a smart player with the puck,” Kakko said. “That’s what I like about him.”
Matthews of course, went first overall the year Laine went second and it’s kinda fun that another Finn could go right after another American center this year. If Kakko continues to play as well as he has this season, inevitably there will be some folks wondering if he should go ahead of Hughes (personally, I don’t think a team can pass on Hughes, but much like Laine, Kakko is a helluva consolation prize).
“I don’t make the choices,” Kakko said. “He’s an awesome player, but I’m confident that I’m a great player too and I have a great opportunity here.”
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