Redemption and triumph were on the line on Tuesday as the 2016 IIHF U20 World Championship wrapped in Helsinki with two medal-deciding games. With three Blackhawks prospects in contention, Chicago was once again well-represented in the silverware department.
In Monday’s semifinal loss to Russia, Team USA could not find a way past the goaltender, but that wasn’t a problem in the bronze-medal match against Sweden. With the score tied 2-2 after the first period, the Americans tallied four consecutive goals in the middle frame and eventually ran away with an 8-3 result, claiming their first medal in three years.
Blackhawks prospect Nick Schmaltz found his groove, contributing a game-high three assists, including a nifty backhand setup for defenseman Brandon Carlo late in the second period. He nearly added a highlight-reel goal in the third period on a move that started with a stick-check and takeaway at his own blue line, but his breakaway effort was turned aside by Sweden’s netminder. Schmaltz, Chicago’s 2014 first-round pick, ended the tournament with eight points (2G, 6A) in seven games, sharing third on the team in his second trip to World Juniors.
Perhaps more impressive than the point total, though, was the noticeable improvements on defense; while Schmaltz played an offensive role in 2015, his ability to kill penalties—which he has done regularly for the University of North Dakota this season—was a valuable asset to Team USA, allowing Schmaltz to pick up more ice time and display his skills in all game situations. The 19-year-old will resume his sophomore campaign at UND, where he ranks second on the team with 26 points and second in the nation with 23 assists.
Defenseman Gustav Forsling, also on his second trip to World Juniors, posted three shots on goal against the U.S., but was held off the scoresheet as Sweden failed to capitalize on five power-play opportunities. The 2014 fifth-round pick—acquired from Vancouver last January—played a primarily offensive role, and his ability to make plays from high in the zone and get dangerous shots through were evident throughout the tournament. Forsling collected three points (2G, 1A) in six games, with both of his goals coming on the power play, and ranked second among tournament defensemen with 24 SOG. He’ll return to Linkoping, where he ranks third among team blueliners with 12 points in 27 games this season.
In contrast to the early game, Finland and Russia staged a nail-biter in their battle for gold, a back-and-forth affair that was reminiscent of the 1998 title game between the two sides, which also took place in Helsinki.
Russia started strong, taking an early lead on the power play and standing firm in the face of a furious Finnish comeback attempt as the hosts racked up a 9-2 shot differential in the middle frame. But the Finns—as they’ve done often in this year’s tournament—eventually rallied, getting an equalizer two separate times in the third period courtesy of their electric top line. Although captain Mikko Rantanen seemed to put Finland ahead for good with a late power-play goal, Russia tied the game with 6 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime.
The Finns were victorious in overtime back in 1998, and they would repeat that result as Toronto prospect Kasperi Kapanen slipped a wraparound shot into the Russian goal to give Finland a 4-3 win in front of a joyous home crowd that included legends Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.
Among the newly crowned champions was Blackhawks prospect Joni Tuulola, who played an understated but important role for Finland throughout the tournament, anchoring the top pairing of a blue line that was occasionally limited by injury and illness. The 2015 sixth-round pick was held without a shot on goal in the game, and finished the tournament with one assist, 6 SOG and a +5 plus/minus rating. After Finland’s championship celebrations are over, Tuulola will head back to HPK in his hometown of Hameenlinna, where he’s collected four assists in 29 games this season.