Top two teams compete in best-of-three series for Finland championship

A new champion in Finland youth hockey will be crowned this weekend, as Jokerit and HIFK are the only two teams left standing in contention for the U16 championship.

JUMPING WITH JOKERIT

Jokerit entered the playoffs as a favorite, with a 32-8-0 record and a top seed in the tournament. Forward Natan Teshome finished the season among the top five in the league in scoring with 34 goals and 60 points. He hasn’t played with Jokerit in a few weeks, since being called up to the U18 team. In his absence, Joonas Paqvalin, Juho Keinänen and Eemil-Olavi Hiltunen have carried the offensive torch, combining to score 10 goals and 24 points. They have accounted for more than half of Jokerit’s offense in the postseason.

The top four seeds — Jokerit being No. 2 — earned first-round byes in the U16 Finland youth hockey playoffs. Eight teams competed in the wild-card rounds; a best-of-three series where the four victorious teams advanced to the quarterfinals. 

Jokerit drew a quarterfinal matchup with No. 10 TPS; a team they had beaten twice before by a score of 9-1 and 3-2. The playoffs went in a similar fashion, with a 6-2 win and 3-1 win to eliminate TPS from the playoffs. Goaltender Harri Juntunen didn’t face a ton of action, but did stop 41-of-44 shots faced in the series.

The semifinal series with No. 8 Lukko proved to be a bit tighter. Jokerit needed to stave off a late comeback by Lukko in Game 1, where Sasu Päivärinta and Jasper Inkinen scored a pair of goals in the final minute of regulation. It wouldn’t be enough, though, as Jokerit held on to win 5-4. Paqvalin and Hiltunen posted three-point performances to help Jokerit earn the first win and set the tone for the rest of the series.

There was no comeback to be had in Game 2, as goals by Paqvalin, Keinänen and Santeri Veiksola would propel Jokerit to a commanding 5-1 win and a spot in the championship.

NO ONE HOTTER THAN HIFK

A 25-13-2 record kept HIFK near the middle of the pack; not quite a top team but certainly not the bottom either. Just three points in the standings kept them from passing HPK in the standings, and put HIFK among the eight teams needing to win a wild-card series to keep their playoff hopes alive.

What could have been an intense situation with the season on the line, HIFK rolled through its wild-card series with Ilves by way of 8-4 and 5-0 victories. The next two rounds proved to be far more nerve-racking.

Aleksi Tuovinen — the team’s leading scorer — followed up a big regular season with an even better performance in the 4-v-5 matchup in the quarterfinals. He assisted on four goals in HIFK’s 6-1 win in Game 1, and when the team dropped Game 2, he scored two goals and an assist to clinch the series win in Game 3.

That set the stage for what has been the best series of the tournament so far, when HIFK took on No. 3 Tappara in the other semifinal. 

HIFK dropped Game 1 after they were unable to put a puck past Juha Riekki, in a 1-0 finish. Tuovinen tied Game 2 with 1:16 left to force overtime and keep HIFK’s playoff hopes alive. After six minutes of extra time, Jonatan Hirschovits cashed in on a power-play goal to force a deciding Game 3.  

In all three games, HIFK would throw 50-or-more shots at the Tappara goal. Only Edvard Grönholm and Viljo Kähkönen were able to put shots past Riekki through 60 minutes, and like Game 2, Game 3 would need overtime to determine a winner of the game and the series. Jere Somervuori and Matias Torkki would connect to set up Thomas Lahtinen for the game-winning goal almost eight minutes into the extra period, putting HIFK in the championship with Jokerit.

CROWNING A CHAMPION

Jokerit carries a 3-1 lead head-to-head in the regular season and comes in as the higher of the two seeds in playoffs. Game 1 of the series is scheduled for Thursday, with Game 2 set for Saturday. If necessary, Game 3 would be Sunday afternoon.

Otto Nuto has elevated his game in the postseason, with a 1.67 goals-against average and .939 save percentage, accounting for five of HIFK’s six playoff victories. HIFK does an exceptional job controlling the flow of the game and throwing plenty of shots on goal. Tuovinen and Grönholm have been the two big pillars in HIFK’s offense, while Kähkönen, Somervuori and Onni Kalto have made significant contributions late in the season. 

Will that be enough to keep Jokerit’s high-powered offense at bay? Paqvalin, Keinanen, Sakari Kostilainen and Renny Tainio make for a balanced offensive attack. Defensemen like Jeremy Mänd, Atte Vikla and Arttu Määttä get involved in a big way too, having scored 22 goals in the regular season.

Jokerit has rolled through the playoffs thus far though, and faced little adversity sweeping teams in both of its playoff series. If HIFK can keep games close enough to make Jokerit sweat, this championship series should be very interesting.

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