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World Championship

Youth movement has Finland unbeaten at Worlds

Off to undefeated start thanks to Laine, Granlund

by Carol Schram / Correspondent

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Finland's hockey program is on top of the world in 2016.

Midway through the preliminary round at the IIHF World Championship, the Finns are tied for first place in the Group B standings with a record of 4-0-0-0 (12 points) and boast the tournament's two top scorers in Patrik Laine and Mikael Granlund, who each have seven points. Two other teams in the tournament are undefeated, Canada (4-0-0-0, 12 points) and the Czech Republic (3-1-0-0, 11 points).

The Finns have two days off before finishing the round-robin portion of the tournament with games against France, Slovakia and Canada. The medal round begins on May 19.

The Finnish hockey program is strong at all levels. Forward Jesse Puljujarvi, projected to be a top three pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, was named tournament MVP at the World Junior Championship in January when the Finns defeated Russia in overtime. Puljujarvi and goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen were named to the All-Star Team at the U18 World Championship in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in April, where Finland also claimed gold.

If the men's team can leave Russia with a gold medal, Finland will become the first nation to sweep all three tournaments. The Finns' current run of strong international makes them one of the favorites going into the World Cup of Hockey, which will take place from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1 in Toronto.

Coach Kari Jalonen has astutely blended experienced NHL veterans with talented upstarts on the World Championship team's top two lines. Minnesota Wild forwards Mikko Koivu and Granlund are lining up alongside 18-year-old Sebastian Aho, who was chosen by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round (No. 35) of the 2015 draft. Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen of the Florida Panthers are playing with Laine, who is projected to be the No. 2 pick in the 2016 draft.

"He's a great player and a great guy," Barkov said of Laine after Finland's 3-0 win against Hungary on Wednesday. "We're from the same hometown (Tampere). I know him because we've practiced together. We're from the same club and same hometown, but we've never been on the same team."

Barkov is 20 years old but after three full seasons in the NHL, he is serving as a mentor for Laine and Aho. 

"I think we have pretty good leaders on the team like Koivu and Jokinen, they're good leaders and older guys. I still feel like a young guy, and I try to learn from them and bring the energy that I have," Barkov said.

The high point of Puljujarvi's season was World Juniors, where he topped the scoring race with five goals and 17 points in seven games. The Finnish coaching staff chose not to name him to the World Championship roster.

Aho earned his spot thanks to a regular season as the leading scorer with Karpat of the Finnish Liiga, scoring 20 goals and 45 points in 45 games. Laine was named postseason MVP of the Liiga Playoffs, scoring 10 goals and 15 points in 18 games when he helped Tappara to a championship. 

"It was exciting to see them win because they lost in the finals three years in a row," Barkov said of his hometown team.

"We have those two talented guys there, they have been showing that they can play at this level," Jalonen said of Laine and Aho. "When you build a team, it's good when you have talented young kids like we have, they always give a positive energy. I'm really proud of those two guys and how they're playing. They're a big part of our whole team."

Another young Finn who played well against Hungary was 21-year-old goaltender Juuse Saros. Finland's gold medal-winning goalie from the 2014 World Junior Championship who was taken by the Nashville Predators in the fourth round (No. 99) of the 2012 draft. Saros stopped all 13 shots he faced Wednesday in his first start of the 2016 World Championship tournament.

Meanwhile, forward Mikko Rantanen, another top prospect, waits in the wings. Chosen by the Colorado Avalanche with the 10th pick in the 2015 draft, Rantanen played nine games in Colorado before spending most of his first North American season with San Antonio of the American Hockey League, where he led the Rampage with 24 goals and 60 points.

Finland has two remaining roster spots available for additional forwards. Rantanen is with the team, and could be added for the late stages of the round robin and the medal round.

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