Finland took home the gold medal at this year's World U18 Championships, adding to the gold medal they already won earlier this year at the U20 World Juniors. I was skeptical they'd compete for any medal this year, let alone win gold, when I saw them play in the pre-tournament, but by the end of the tournament, they looked like the best team there.
What happened? A couple things.
1. You can't underestimate the additions of Kristian Vesalainen and especially Jesse Puljujarvi. Adding guys that can play on a top line like that can have a two-fold effect. First, obviously, they're just really good players. Puljujarvi and Vesalainen immediately plugged into Finland's top power play and they ended up setting up Aapeli Rasanen's game-winning goal against the United States.
But the other hidden effect is the way those additions push everybody down the line-up. I believe Finland won this tournament because they had the best third line in the tournament. Their line of Tuulola-Makinen-Nurmi was big, strong, and could carry the play. When things got tight in the game against the United States, they would were able to roll that third line and the US didn't feel comfortable doing so.
2. Finland had some young guys grow up in a hurry. I thought Sioux City forward Eeli Tolvanen was quiet in the pre-tournament camp, but he was electric in the main tournament. He scored seven goals in seven games, capped off by an absolute laser to open up the scoring in the gold medal game. But that was especially the case on the blue line where the Finns got incredible performances from their three '99-born defensemen Miro Heiskanen, Henri Jokiharju, and Urko Vaakanainen. They played really outstanding hockey in the final weekend and made a big difference.
But the most important youngster on their roster was '99 goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen who came into camp as the team's third goalie, but became Finland's starting goalie by the end of the tournament and played well enough to shut down the powerful Team USA offense in the semifinal. Luukkonen is a huge goalie and made himself one of the early favorites in goal for the 2017 NHL Draft.
3. They gelled together as a team over the course of the two weeks. When they first came together in the pre-tournament camp, everything looked disjointed and there was a lot of individual effort. By the end of the tournament, they were playing together as a team, and a really good team at that.
It may have been surprising to see Finland skate away with another international gold, but it was no fluke. The Finns are going through a banner crop of talent and making the most of it.