HELSINKI — A couple of kids from Finland, who are too young to drink and too young to vote and still have to wear full face-masks, are standing in Canada’s way of winning a medal at the world junior hockey championship.
On paper, it sounds like it should be an easy obstacle to overcome. After all, Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine are both only 17 years old and are playing in what is considered to be a 19-year-old’s tournament. But do not let their ages fool you.
They might be teenagers, but the pair of forwards — both 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds — look and have been playing like they belong in the NHL. Heading into Saturday’s quarter-final against Canada, Puljujarvi led all scorers with five goals and 12 points in four games. Laine is in third with four goals and eight points.
Along with linemate Sebastian Aho, a Carolina Hurricanes prospect who has three goals and nine points, the projected top-3 picks in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft are putting up the kind of numbers that have not been seen since Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg scored 31 points in the 1993 tournament.
They might not get close to that record. But then, both Puljujarvi and Laine are two years younger than Forsberg was back then.
“Well, first of all (Puljujarvi) has 12 points, so that’s surprising,” said teammate Kasperi Kapanen. “I really didn’t know too much about the guys. I knew they were fast and that they were skilled … Now that the tournament has started, I guess they’re showing everybody what they can do.”
It is not just Puljujarvi and Laine who have opened eyes in this tournament. While 17-year-old Julien Gauthier has no goals and only one assist for Canada, youth has been on display almost everywhere you look.
Top draft prospect Auston Matthews of the U.S. has four goals and eight points; Sweden’s Alexander Nylander, 17, has three goals and eight points; and six of the top-8 scorers, including American Matthew Tkachuk (seven points) and Finland’s Olli Juolevi (six points), are draft eligible.
“A little bit surprising, especially since it’s been a little bit tough times in the Finnish league lately,” Puljujarvi, who has 12 points in 31 games for Karpat in the SM-Liiga, said through a translator. “So a little bit surprising that it’s going so well.”
“It’s been a pretty big surprise that we’ve got this many points and had this much success as a line,” said Laine, who has 16 points in 24 games for Tappara Tampere. “I’m pretty happy so far.”
It takes an exceptional talent to excel against competition that is as much as two years older. But it also takes a coach who is willing to live and die with the inevitable growing pains.
Canada, which cut projected top-5 pick Jakob Chychrun and Pierre-Luc Duobois, both defencemen, at its selection camp, has been conservative with Gauthier’s role so far in the tournament. Finland has done the opposite. Realizing that the team’s young players were its best players, the coaching staff loosened the reins on them.
“If you over-coach them, you will make a mistake,” said Finland’s head coach, Jukka Jalonen. “Obviously they will make some mistakes, but If you try to correct them all the time and they start thinking all over the ice, it’s bad. So you have to let them play.”
Still, it is a style that would give an NHL coach an ulcer. Finland scores in bunches, leading all teams with 23 goals in four games. But they also take on water, having allowed 13 goals — the second-most in the tournament.
In a back-and-forth game against Czech Republic on Thursday, Finland went ahead 3-2, trailed 4-3 and then eventually won 5-4. Puljujarvi tied the game and Laine scored the winner. The pair has been on the ice for 14 of Finland’s 23 goals.
Canada, meanwhile, has scored 13 goals as a team.
“I think they’re brothers somehow,” Kapanen said of Finland’s top line. “They’re just not telling us that they’re brothers. They just know where each other are and I just laugh on the bench when they score. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
All this bodes well for the upcoming draft. Though it is still months away, the world junior championship can leave a lasting impression in a scout’s mind — especially when the opponent is Canada.
“I think these are maybe the best chances to show what you can do on the ice,” said Laine. “These four games have been pretty good so far. Now when the real games start, it’s another opportunity to show everybody what you’re capable of.”
Jalonen said any NHL team would be happy to have Puljujarvi, whom he called a “work horse” and a “total professional.”
When asked for a scouting report on his linemate Laine, Puljujarvi simply said: “Defencemen has to be really ready to play.”
In other words: consider yourself warned, Canada.