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Former Ranger Immonen surprise star at Worlds

by Bill Meltzer /
A few weeks ago, it was unlikely that even the most diehard of hockey devotees gave much thought to the impact that former New York Rangers forward Jarkko Immonen would have on the 2011 World Championship in Slovakia. The 29-year-old has spent all but two seasons of his career in Europe and was coming off a solid but not spectacular season in the KHL. Few even within Finland would have predicted before the tournament that Immonen would be a crucial force in the Finns' second gold medal in World Championship history.

Playing on a line with top Minnesota Wild prospect Mikael Granlund and former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Janne Pesonen (Immonen's teammate with Ak Bars Kazan the last two seasons), Immonen led the tournament in scoring with 9 goals and 12 points in Finland's nine games. Not only did he tally goals by the bushel, Immonen also scored them at critical games.

Most notably, Immonen's power-play blast that beat Sweden goaltender Viktor Fasth in the waning seconds of the second period of the gold-medal game proved to be the turning point. Rather than going to the locker room trailing 1-0, Finland skated off with a 1-1 tie and the momentum on their side. The stage was set for turned out to be a five-goal explosion in the third period.

Finland's gold-medal victory touched off days of celebration back home, culminating with a commemoration in Helsinki's Market Square. An estimated 100,000 people jammed the Square, which is located adjacent to the presidential palace. Finland president Tarja Halonen greeted the team during the ceremony.

"This is the greatest experience of my career," Immonen told the Finnish press amidst the celebrations. "I'm just proud to be with all these guys. We were very close as a team, even before the tournament, and it was incredible to accomplish this together. We believed in each other all along. It still hasn't totally sunk in yet, but it's an amazing feeling."

Immonen's NHL rights still belong to the Rangers, the team he played 20 games with during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. He has not played in North America since 2007, but according to reports, Rangers assistant general manager Jim Schoenfeld has acknowledged that off his strong showing at the Worlds, Immonen's name will come up in the club's off-season discussions. Immonen signed a contract extension with his KHL club May 4, but that would not preclude a future return to the NHL if the Rangers or another team were sufficiently interested.

"Right now, I'm just enjoying (the gold medal)," Immonen said. "It's a long season and (championships) don't happen all the time."

Originally a product of the SapKo Savolinna and TuTo Turku development systems, the Rantasalmi native broke into the SM-Liiga with Assat Pori in 2001. A member of the Finnish national junior team, Immonen played at the 2000 World Under-18 Championships and the World Junior Championship two years later. After the right-handed shooting center posted 4 goals and 7 points in seven games while helping Finland win a bronze medal Finns at the 2002 WJC and dressed in 44 SM-Liiga games that season, the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Immonen in the eighth round (No. 254) of the 2002 Entry Draft.

Despite Immonen's soft hands and excellent offensive instincts, he had flaws in his game that caused his draft stock to drop. Most NHL scouts considered Immonen a subpar skater and no better than average defensively. As a result, his NHL candidacy was considered a hit-or-miss proposition based solely on his ability to score goals.

In 2003-04, Immonen broke out as one of the SM-Liiga's top young stars, scoring 23 goals and 49 points in 52 games for JYP Jyvaskyla. He followed that with a 19-goal, 47-point season in 2004-05. In the meantime, the Maple Leafs traded Immonen's rights to the Rangers as part of the 2004 deal that sent star defenseman Brian Leetch to Toronto.

Immonen reported to New York for his first NHL training camp in 2005-06. He spent most of the next two seasons with Hartford of the American Hockey League, totaling 30 goals and 70 points as a rookie and 20 goals and 46 points (in just 54 games) the second season. He had 2 goals in six NHL games in 2005-06, and 1 goal in 14 games with the Rangers the following season.

Immonen became a restricted free agent in the summer of 2006. The Rangers gave him a qualifying offer to retain his NHL rights, but the forward elected to return to Finland to play for JYP. He spent two highly productive seasons in SM-Liiga, averaging better than a point per game and winning a Finnish championship in 2008-09. Since then, he has played in Kazan, winning the KHL's Gagarin Cup in 2010 and scoring 21 goals this season. However, his 38 points in 53 games fell a bit short of expectations and his team lost in the second round of the playoffs. He had 2 goals and 6 points in the postseason.

Invited to join Team Finland for the 2011 World Championship, Immonen immediately accepted. Coach Jukka Jalonen asked his non-NHL players to report to a training camp held several weeks ahead of the tournament to prepare for a series of pre-tournament exhibition games. Immonen's play started to pick up quickly, and he carried that momentum through the World Championship.

"The exhibition games gave him a chance to get into an even better shape and gain some confidence. He hadn't been as good as we had expected in the games during the season, but in this tournament he was amazing," Jalonen told the IIHF's website.

Much of the credit for Immonen's scoring success at the World Championship can be attributed to his chemistry with linemates Granlund and Pesonen. With outstanding playmaking ability that belies his youth, the 19-year-old Granlund -- taken by the Minnesota Wild with the ninth pick of the 2010 Entry Draft -- created numerous scoring chances for Immonen. Meanwhile, the familiarity that Immonen and Pesonen have gained from playing together the last two seasons enabled each to know where the other would be at all times. Granlund finished the tournament with 2 goals and 9 points, while Pesonen had a pair of goals and 5 assists.

Whether or not Immonen ever plays again in the NHL, it's fair to say that he has conclusively proven that he can star on the world stage. In any given game or short tournament, he remains an extremely dangerous threat to the opposition.
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