When last seen by most North American fans, top Minnesota Wild
prospect Mikael Granlund
had just scored one of the most spectacular goals in international hockey history. The 19-year-old center scored a lacrosse-style goal under the crossbar against Team Russia to open the scoring in the semifinal game of the 2011 World Championships. Coming off a championship season in Finland for HIFK Helsinki, Granlund subsequently added a World Championship gold medal – just the second in Finnish hockey history and first since 1995 – to his collection.
Apart from a concussion that sidelined him last fall and kept him out of the World Junior Championships, the 2010-11 season as a whole was a triumph for the No. 9 pick of the 2010 Entry Draft. Granlund averaged nearly a point-per-game during the SM-liiga regular season (36 points in 39 games), and fared even better in the playoffs (16 points in 15 matches) and the Worlds (9 points in 9 games).
So far during the new season, he's picked up right where he left off.
has posted at least one point in every game he's played this season. (Getty Images)
Heading into HIFK's derby on Wednesday against arch rival Jokerit Helsinki, Granlund has posted at least one point in every game he's played this season. He has dressed in 8 of the team's 9 games played to date, missing one game in September after being on the receiving end of a questionable hit in the third period of a 6-0 shellacking of Tappara Tampere.
During the course of the 8 games he's played, Granlund has already racked up 14 points, on 4 goals and 10 assists. Granlund ranks second in the league in scoring, trailing ageless linemate Ville Peltonen
by one point while leading the league in assists. Peltonen tops the league with 8 goals.
"I've said this before, but Ville makes it easy to play because he's always in perfect position and has his stick along the ice," said Granlund to Hensingin Sanomat.
The 2011-12 season will almost certainly be Granlund's final one in Finland before heading to the NHL.
He elected to stay home this season in order to complete his compulsory military obligation. While HIFK's top line has continued its dominance of a year ago, the club as a whole has suffered a bit of a championship hangover. The team currently sits in ninth place in SM-liiga's 14-team circuit, with four wins (3 in regulation) in its nine games.
"Scoring goals really doesn't mean anything if the team loses," said Granlund. "We're not where we want to be as a team right now, and we all have to play a little better."
Although HIFK has struggled in the standings early, the blame can hardly be pinned on Granlund. He has only been on the ice for three even-strength goals against, sporting a plus-minus rating of plus-9. In addition, he has played 20 or more minutes in all but two games this season, including a season high 24:37 in HIFK's 3-2 loss to TPS Turku this past Saturday.
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The opportunity to play Jokerit represents not only a renewal of SM-liiga's most intense rivalry, but also an opportunity for HIFK to start making up ground in the standings. Jokerit, which has played one fewer game, is undefeated in eight games played so far, with seven of the wins coming in regulation. In the regular-season opener, Jokerit downed HIFK by a 5-3 score. Granlund recorded a pair of power-play assists in that game.
If HIFK is to fare better against Jokerit than the first time around, the club is going to have to find ways to solve goaltender Eero Kilpelainen
(1.27 GAA, .949 save percentage and 4 shutouts in 7 starts), as well as contain an attack that leads the league with an average 4.25 goals scored per game. On the first front, HIFK succeeded admirably in the opener, drawing within one goal twice after falling behind 3-1 and 4-2.
The defensive zone has been the bigger problem area for HIFK so far. The team has allowed an average 2.77 goals per game; by no means disastrous (even in a low-scoring league) but also not a total that is conducive to picking off enough 2-1 or 3-2 wins, which is the lifeblood of surging in the Finnish league standings.
The current first-place team is the surprising Lahti Pelicans. Backstopped by towering Philadelphia Flyers
prospect Niko Hovinen
(1.83 GAA, .931 save percentage, 5-for-5 in stopping shootout attempts), the club has risen from the bottom portion of the standings to post 9 wins and 25 points. However, the Pelicans have already played 11 games, so many of the clubs behind them in the standings -- including Jokerit and HIFK -- have multiple games in hand to close the gap.
With a regulation win in the Helsinki derby, Jokerit would tie the Pelicans for first place. HIFK needs the three points simply to start creeping up on the top six teams in the standings. At the end of the regular season, the top six finishers get automatic berths in the playoff quarterfinals. The next four teams have to play a mini-series to reach the quarters.
While that is a long way off, the defending champions can ill afford to fall too far behind the upper quadrant of the standings.