|(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
It hasn't yet been three years since Rasmus Ristolainen swept across the ice in Malmo, Sweden and slid a backhand shot into the net to claim Finland its first gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship since 1998.
Ristolainen was already in the midst of his first professional season after becoming the Buffalo Sabres' top draft pick in 2013, and his goal to clinch the 2014 World Juniors represented one of the most significant moments in recent Finnish hockey history.
Since then, Finland has only had more to celebrate. The Finns won the gold medal again at World Juniors in January and then won silver at the IIHF World Championship in May. Leading the way was a pair of prospects expected to be selected at the top of the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo on Friday.
At World Juniors, it was Jesse Puljujarvi who scored a tournament high 17 points (5+12) en route to being named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. He's widely presumed to be selected third overall in the Draft.
At the World Championship, it was Patrik Laine who earned MVP honors with 12 points (7+5) as Finland remained undefeated until dropping the Gold Medal Game to a Canadian team stocked with NHL talent. Laine is expected to be picked second overall on Friday.
Add in Olli Juolevi, expected to be one of the first defensemen taken off the board in the first round on Friday, and the Finns have a nice core to carry them to even more international success in the coming years.
"I think we just have good confidence as a country in those tournaments and we know we can beat anybody," Laine said at the NHL Scouting Combine at HARBORCENTER earlier this month.
Like Ristolainen, it's not hard to envision the three first-round Finns in this year's Draft finding success in the NHL at a young age, particularly in the case of Laine. His MVP honors at the World Championship came against competition that included household names like Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Connor McDavid and Ryan O'Reilly.
"I think I had a nice experience there," Laine said. "I could show everybody that I could play at that level and play well. It's just nice to know that those top players aren’t so far [ahead] and nice to see that I can play against those guys."
Laine even beat the one player expected to be drafted ahead of him, Auston Matthews, when Finland earned a lopsided win over Team USA early in the tournament. While he's continually expressed his admiration and respect for Matthews' game, he also hasn’t been shy about his confidence that he can be the best player in the Draft.
"At this point I think we're quite even and he's better than me at some stuff and I'm better than him at some things," he said. "I think I have a better shot and ability to score goals and I think I'm more physical than him."
Laine's success at the World Championship earned him one of the final spots on Finland's roster for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto this October, in which Ristolainen will also participate. Expect Puljujarvi and Juolevi to join them in future tournaments and, if they have it their way, more young prospects to come through as well.
"I just hope it's not only like one or two years," Juolevi told Brian Duff in a sit-down interview for Sabres.com. "I just hope it keeps going and I'm pretty sure it's going to happen."