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Finns hope to avoid déjà vu, advance to semifinals

Monday, 01.02.2012 / 10:33 AM / 2012 World Junior Championship

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Finns hope to avoid déjà vu, advance to semifinals
A heartbreaking overtime loss to Russia in last year's WJC quarterfinals has Finland hoping to write a different script this year when it faces off with Slovakia on Monday.
CALGARY -- The Finnish National Junior Team has seen this script before, and the ending wasn't too memorable.
 
It was only last year when Finland advanced to the quarterfinal round of the World Junior Championship after nailing down the second seed in its pool with 10 points, via three wins and one overtime loss.
 
They opened the medal round against Russia and jumped out to a 3-1 lead, but ultimately lost the game. The Russians scored twice in the final 3:41 of regulation to tie it before Evgeny Kuznetsov ended it 6:44 into overtime.
 
The Finns are hoping they don't experience a little déjà vu this year. After all, they advanced to the quarterfinal round after placing second in Group B with nine points on three wins and one regulation loss. They'll meet Slovakia this time around, a team that just so happened to score four goals in a 4:29 span of the third period en route to a 6-4 victory over Switzerland on Saturday to earn their date with the Finns.
 
The contest is slated for Monday at the Scotiabank Saddledome at 5 p.m. ET. The winner will face Team Sweden on Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET in the tournament semifinals.
 
After losing top 2012 draft prospect Olli Maatta (concussion) on defense in an 8-1 loss to Canada in their tournament opener, the Finns have yielded just two goals over the last three games. Maatta is ranked No. 3 among Ontario Hockey League skaters by NHL Central Scouting, and fellow defenseman Ville Pokka is No. 2 among skaters playing starring overseas in Finland. Goalie Sami Aittokallio has allowed just one goal on 75 shots in two victories with a tournament-low 0.50 goals-against average and tourney-high .986 save percentage.
 
"Well, we have the same team," said leading scorer Teemu Pulkkinen. "Nothing really changed [since Canada]. It was just one game, and when it was over, we decided to move on. We had four games, and we had three victories after that, so we're happy for this situation now."
 
Unlike last year, Pulkkinen is in pretty good company on a line with Mikael and Markus Granlund this year. The line has been an absolute menace for opposing defenses to contain, striking for 6 goals, 19 points and a plus-16 rating.
 
"I think we create chances for each other in all the game," Mikael Granlund said. "We need to focus on that."
 
"They have been together for a long time; Mikael and Teemu played before and the young Granlund (Markus) is the new guy on the line," Finland coach Raimo Helminen said. "They work well together."
 
Pulkkinen, a 2010 fourth-round draft choice (No. 111) of the Detroit Red Wings, scored his team-leading fifth goal of the tournament in a 4-0 victory over the Czech Republic on Saturday. The 5-foot-10, 198-pound wing scored four consecutive third-period goals on Friday in a 10-1 victory against Denmark.

Czech assistant coach Jiri Fischer, who works as director of player development for the Red Wings, is certainly aware of Pulkkinen's skill set.
 
"He's a special player when he's on his game," Fischer said. "I only hope, for his career, that he'll find the consistency of production, but he's a good player."
 
The Granlunds agree.
 
"He's an amazing guy … he can finish and score and pass also," Mikael Granlund said. "He's just what we need."
 
There's no question the addition of the Granlunds this year has bolstered the Finns up front.
 
The flashy Finns were unable to participate last year. Mikael Granlund, chosen ninth by the Minnesota Wild at the 2010 Entry Draft, was suffering from post-concussion symptoms at the time. Markus, who was drafted in the second round (No. 45) by the Calgary Flames last June, wasn't even a part of last year's 29-player preliminary roster.
 
"Of course, it's fun to play with him because he's a good player," Markus Granlund said of his brother. "We grew up playing all kinds of sports, all the time. On ice, I don't know, I think we are the same type of player."
 
Mikael, Finland's captain this tournament, has a different take on the relationship with his brother.
 
"He's just a teammate, nothing special," he said with a grin. "We are the same kind of player, really. Maybe more of playmakers, but we try to score when we have chance."
 
Helminen considers Mikael Granlund an exceptional leader.
 
"He's really good … he takes care of the team and is a big boy," the coach said. "He and Markus play the same kind of hockey. I don't know them really well, but I can tell you he's a big brother, for sure."

When asked if he thought his older brother was the best player in the WJC not playing in the NHL, Markus Granlund began shaking his head before admitting, "No, I'm the best."
 
Slovakia, meanwhile, advanced to the quarterfinal round of the WJC for the first time since 2009. The country finished eighth the previous two years. Matus Chovan's hat trick, including the game-winner, sparked the third-period comeback over Switzerland.
 
While Finland has one Red Wings prospect leading the team in scoring, the Slovaks have two -- each drafted last June.
 
Tomas Jurco (second round, No. 35) leads the team with 6 points, including 5 assists, and Marek Tvrdon (fourth round, No. 115) has 2 goals and 3 points. Goaltender Juraj Simboch, meanwhile, is 2-1 with a 2.67 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.
 
Slovakia, which last medaled at the WJC in 1999 with bronze, finished third in Group A with two victories, two losses and six points.
 
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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