If there was one player Team Finland could least afford to be without at the 2011 World Junior Championship, it was HIFK Helsinki center Mikael Granlund. Already a veteran of two World Junior tournaments and a high-end SM-Liiga talent at age 18, the gifted Minnesota Wild prospect often has been likened to Saku Koivu at the same age.
Unfortunately, Granlund sustained a concussion in October that has kept him out of action. As a result Team Finland has had to do without the player who scored 7 points in six games at last year's tournament and has averaged nearly a point per game (16 goals and 51 points in 57 games) playing against men in the SM-Liiga.
Granlund has been limited to 12 games this season for HIFK, in which he has 3 goals and 11 points.
"Of course it's tough when you don't have a player like Granlund. It's a big loss. But we still have to pull together as a team. We have a lot of good players, and no matter who is here or missing, it takes contributions from everyone to be successful," Team Finland coach Lauri Marjamaki before the start of the tournament.
Even without Granlund, the Finland forward corps -- often an area of weakness over the last decade compared to the defense and goaltending -- boasts several high-end talents who already are established SM-Liiga players despite their tender ages.
Most notably, Jokerit Helsinki winger Teemu Pulkkinen (a 2010 Detroit Red Wings draftee) has blossomed into a dangerous offensive player at Finland's top level, while Ilves Tampere forward Toni Rajala (Edmonton Oilers) and Karpat Oulu forward Joonas Donskoi (Florida Panthers) are fast-rising talents, while Espoo Blues forward Joonas Nattinen (Montreal Canadiens) and KalPa Kuopio forward Iiro Pakarinen (2011 Entry Draft eligible) skate regular shifts for their SM-Liiga clubs. Meanwhile, undersized JyP Jyvaskyla blueliner Sami Vatanen (Anaheim Ducks) is one of the Finnish Elite League's top offensive defensemen. All of these players have stepped up their games thus far to compensate for Granlund's absence.
Although Finland lost to the defending champion Team USA 3-2 in overtime on Sunday, the first day of the tournament, it was a moral victory of sorts. Finland played the U.S. on a largely even basis, and ended up out-shooting Team USA 34-30. More important, the young Lions roared back from a pair of deficits and sent the game to overtime on a Pakarinen goal with 7:01 left in regulation.
Finland built on its strong opening-game performance with a 4-0 shutout of Switzerland on Tuesday. The Lions grabbed the lead in the final minute of the first period and never looked back.
They'll take that momentum into Wednesday's game against Germany. They'll finish preliminary-round play Friday against Slovakia.
Nattinen has scored in each of the first two games. His second-period goal against the U.S. tied the game for a time, and he had the game-winner against Switzerland. Pulkkinen, who is tied for the team lead with nine shots on goal, assisted on Pakarinen's clutch third-period goal against Team USA and scored a power-play goal that put the second game out of reach. Rajala has been credited with a pair of assists to go along with his nine shots on goal. Donskoi has lived up to his reputation as one of the fastest skaters in the tournament, and registered 2 assists in the Switzerland game. Vatanen still is looking for his first point in the tournament, but has logged heavy ice time on the blueline.
"I think I can play a little better, but the most important thing is to get better with each game," said Vatanen, who is serving as team captain. "I think we've played two good games so far, and have improved as the games have gone along."
In addition to the aforementioned players, Minnesota Wild prospect Erik Haula, an Assat Pori product who has opted to play U.S. collegiate hockey for the University of Minnesota, has performed well on a line with Pulkkinen. He has assisted on a pair of goals and made several strong defensive plays, including an important defensive-zone clear when the U.S. had Finland pinned deep in its end and seemed on the brink of scoring or drawing a power play. His rink-wide hook-up with Pulkkinen in the Switzerland game is one of the early highlights of the tournament.
Meanwhile, Finland has gotten very strong goaltending from Calgary Flames prospect Joni Ortio. A product of the TPS Turku system that for many years was a veritable factory of future NHL goaltenders (most notably Miikka Kiprusoff and Antero Niittymaki), Ortio has split this season between struggling TPS in the SM-Liiga and playing on loan assignments to teams at the minor-league Mestis level (four games with the Finnish U20 team, three games with TuTo Turku and one start for KooKoo Kouvola). Ortio had a rough baptism at least year's WJC but has been outstanding so far this year in Buffalo. He gave Finland a legitimate chance to beat the U.S. and flawlessly handled the sporadic shots Switzerland sent his way.
There is no doubt Granlund's presence could have made the difference in the narrow loss to the U.S. As the tournament progresses and Finland (in all likelihood) face a medal-round showdown with one of the tournament's top medal contenders, the team will have to elevate its game even higher to pull an upset. But Finland is used to being the underdog, and often thrives in that role. The current WJC team already has sent a loud, clear message to the rest of the field that they remain a formidable opponent. Finland isn't going to use the absence of their most highly-touted player as an excuse for losing, and they certainly aren't going to go down without a fight.