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FEATURE: Lankinen flashes NHL potential at World Championship

From Rockford to celebrating with 50,000 fans in Helsinki, Kevin Lankinen looks back on a breakout summer

by Austin Siegel / Blackhawks.com

Between the pipes in the AHL and ECHL this season, Kevin Lankinen faced down everyone from the Idaho Steelheads to the Manitoba Moose.

Last month, the degree of difficulty increased ever so slightly against Alexander Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov.

The Blackhawks prospect turned in 32 saves in 1-0 win against a Russian squad loaded with NHL talent in the semifinals of the 2019 Hockey World Championship, before backstopping the Finns to a gold medal against Canada. 

"To be able to shut down the Russian team, full of NHL stars and one of the top goal scorers in the whole world, that was really nice," Lankinen said. "I was happy to perform well on such a big stage and then in the Final, to be able to win against Matt Murray and beat Canada."

Lankinen emerged as the breakout star on the tournament's breakout team, as a Finland squad lacking star power knocked off hockey heavyweights and claimed gold at Worlds. The Blackhawks signed the 24-year-old Lankinen last summer as a European free agent, adding to the organization's already impressive goalie depth. 

After winning a gold medal, Lankinen returned to a hero's welcome in Finland. His performance this summer has mirrored the rise of hockey in his native country, as the Finns also claimed gold at World Juniors in January.

Lankinen said the sport is more popular than ever back home. 

"It's been totally crazy up here. Finland is really hockey crazy and the World Championships are the biggest sporting event that everybody watches," he said. "Out of five million people, three million watched the Final against Canada."

The TV audience is one thing, but Lankinen said the national team's reception in Finland has been equally overwhelming.

"We've been having a couple big celebrations in the Helsinki market square with over 50,000 people and another in Tampere too," he said. "It's been fun to see the whole country go crazy."

The first sign that this tournament might be something special for Lankinen came in the group stage, when he made 20 saves in a 3-1 win over Canada. But the Blackhawks prospect saved his best stuff for the knockout rounds, when he outdueled some of the best goalies in the game back-to-back-to-back. 

Henrik Lundqvist in the quarterfinals? No problem. Andrei Vasilevskiy in the semis? Take a seat. 

By the time he dispatched Murray and Canada in the Gold Medal Game, Lankinen had defeated three goalies who combine for seven All-Star Games, two Stanley Cups and over $16 million in salary. Not bad for a guy whose entire NHL experience consists of sitting on the bench in the Blackhawks season finale as a backup.

"It was so much fun. Henrik Lundqvist has been one of my biggest idols since I was a kid and started playing hockey," Lankinen said. "I've been watching him play for the Rangers and the Swedish national team for a long time and to be able to line up next to him and end up winning the game was a special feeling."

For Blackhawks fans, Lankinen's performance highlighted just how deep the organization's goalie pipeline could be. 

Collin Delia turned in several strong performances at the NHL level playing behind Corey Crawford and Cam Ward this season. Factor in Alexis Gravel backstopping Halifax to the Memorial Cup Final plus Lankinen winning gold in Slovakia, and the Blackhawks could have a bright future between the pipes. 

"My biggest goal is to play in the NHL. I've been dreaming about that since I was a little kid," Lankinen said. "I want to be in top shape when I get to training camp. We'll see what happens after that."

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