The IIHF World Junior Championship concluded on Tuesday night as Finland won their fourth gold medal at Hartwall Arena in front of their home crowd. The Finns overcame an early deficit to beat the Russians 4-3 in overtime and the United States defeated Sweden 8-3 to claim the bronze medal.
Hurricanes prospects Sebastian Aho and Alex Nedeljkovic were key members of their respective teams. Here’s a recap of their dominant performances throughout the tournament.
Sebastian Aho, Finland
Sebastian Aho (2015, second round) served as alternate captain for the Finns, but also took on an important role centering the top line alongside Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine.
The line combined for 44 points, finished as the top three leading scorers and were named Finland’s top three players of the tournament. Aho finished the tournament with 14 points (5g, 9a), tallying points in six out of their seven games.
Finland’s road to the gold medal game included wins over Canada in the quarterfinals and Sweden in the semifinals. Aho had a goal and two assists in Finland’s quarterfinal win against the Canadians, including an assist on Laine’s game-winning goal. The semifinal round was set for a classic Finland versus Sweden rivalry featuring Finland’s explosive offense against Sweden’s solid defensive core. Sweden got on the scoreboard first, but the Finns fought back with two unanswered goals to secure the win. The semifinal game was the only game that Aho didn’t register a point in.
With a win over Sweden, Aho and the Finns moved on to the gold medal game to face the Russians for the second time in the tournament. Aho had one goal in their first meeting, but Finland lost a 3-1 lead and ultimately fell 6-4 to Russia.
The gold medal game turned into an instant classic with both teams leaving it all on the ice. Russia got the advantage early in the first period on the power play. Finland bounced back and energized the home crowd in the first 24 seconds of the third period as Aho dished the puck to Laine, who scored his seventh goal of the tournament.
Russia made it clear that they weren’t giving up the gold medal that easily, scoring 1:17 later to take back the lead. The host team tied the game for the second time with just under 10 minutes left in the game as Aho’s line continued to be an offensive threat. Aho scored his fifth goal of the tournament with assists going to linemates Puljujarvi and Laine.
Finland finally broke past the Russian penalty kill unit as captain Mikko Rantanen scored a power play goal with 2:09 left in the third period, giving the Finns a 3-2 lead. Again, the Russians answered after pulling their goalie and tying the game with 6.9 seconds left in regulation.
In what might be considered déjà vu, the gold medal game went to overtime. The last time Finland faced Russia in the championship game was in Helsinki in 1998, where the Finns took the Russians to overtime to claim the gold in front of their home crowd.
Yet again, the gold medal game between Finland and Russia would be decided in a twenty-minute sudden death overtime. Kasperi Kapanen ended it just 1:33 into overtime with a wrap-around goal, leading Finland to their fourth gold medal.
The Finns scored 35 goals on the way to winning the gold medal, their highest offensive production at World Juniors since 1998. Aho finished the tournament with a plus-9 rating.
Alex Nedeljkovic, United States of America
Alex Nedeljkovic (2014, second round) earned the role of starting goalie for the United States and was dominant in net for the Americans, allowing only nine goals against during the tournament.
Nedeljkovic posted a .949 save percentage through five games, which is second only to John Gibson’s .955 in 2013 as the best save percentage by a U.S. goalie in World Juniors.
The 19-year-old earned his first shutout of the tournament in the quarterfinals against the Czech Republic, stopping all 28 shots he faced. The Americans defeated the Czechs 7-0 and moved on to face Russia in the semifinals.
The U.S. fell 2-1 to Russia despite gaining an early first period lead. Nedeljkovic made 31 saves in the semifinal loss and was named one of the top three American players in the tournament.
Nedeljkovic and the U.S. faced off against Sweden in the bronze medal game, the second meeting of the tournament for the two teams. The Swedes bested the Americans 1-0 in their second game of World Juniors. Nedeljkovic made 22 saves in the 1-0 loss.
The Americans bounced back from their semifinal loss to Russia and opened the scoring in the 11:59 minute mark of the first period against Sweden. The U.S. scored four goals in the second period on their way to an 8-3 triumph over the Swedes to win the bronze medal.
Nedeljkovic made 35 saves, finishing the tournament with a 1.66 goals against average and a .943 save percentage (second best in the tournament and third best among American goaltenders in World Juniors history). His record-breaking performance helped lead the Americans to their fourth medal in the last seven World Junior Championships.
World Juniors 2017
The World Junior Championship returns to North America in 2017 and will be held in Toronto and Montreal. Group A will play in Montreal and will include Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, Denmark and Switzerland. Group B will play in Toronto and will include Russia, USA, Canada, Slovakia and Latvia.
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