Finland’s primary export to professional hockey leagues tends to be goaltenders - and on Monday night, at the Pengrowth Saddledome, Canada’s world junior team got a look at the latest product of the Finnish goalie factory.
His name is Christopher Gibson and if you want to know how a native of Espoo, who grew up idolizing Miikka Kiprusoff, can be named Christopher Gibson, well, it’s because his father, a martial arts instructor, was born in England before moving to Finland.
Gibson has actually been playing in Canada since he was 15, one year for the Notre Dame Academy in Wilcox, Sask. where he helped the team win the 2009 Telus Cup championship, and the past three seasons for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Weirdly, for last year’s NHL entry draft, the two top rated goalies were both named Gibson - John, an American, and Christopher, who got the call Monday night for the Finns in the rink that the Calgary Flames’ Kiprusoff usually calls home.
Gibson responded with a thoroughly Kiprusoff-like performance in the first official world junior exhibition for both teams, and he - along with relief man Sami Aittokallio, who came in to play the third - kept it close for much of the night. Finland was nursing a one-goal lead through 26 minutes of play, before a pair of second-period goals by Boone Jenner and Mark Stone a little more than six minutes apart turned the tide in Canada’s favor. Brendan Gallagher iced it for Canada with 1:39 remaining in regulation on a bad giveaway by Finnish defenceman Jani Hakanpaa to make it a 3-1 final.
Until then, it was close all the way, Canada emerging victorious, but with also a couple of valuable lessons learned against a Finnish team still battling jet lag after arriving less than 24 hours before.
“We were a little nervous at the start,” assessed Canadian coach Don Hay, “but I thought we stuck with it and got better and that’s a real good sign. There’s lots of areas to improve in; I thought Mark Visentin played real solid for us (in goal) and as the game went on, made some big saves for us.”
Ultimately, the penalty killing needs to get tighter. After giving up four power-play goals against a college all-star team last week, Canada immediately surrendered a goal the first time it played short versus the Finns - Teemu Pulkkinen scoring on a one-timer that deflected in off Mark Visentin’s glove at the 14:22 mark of the first period.
But there were some good moments for Canada too. What may be the No. 1 defence pair - Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Gormley - looks as if it’ll be a formidable and imposing duo. A number of times, the Canadian defencemen caught the Fins napping and sprung forwards for clear breakaways with pinpoint passes.
Up front, the Anaheim Ducks’ loaner, Devante Smith-Pelly, set the tone physically. Finland seemed vulnerable to Canada’s pressure forechecking and whenever they were able to get in hard on the body, the Canadians forced turnovers and created scoring chances.
“Some of our players led the way physically; Smith-Pelly was really good that way,” said Hay. “We didn’t do anything to shoot ourselves in the foot; we had good discipline. We just kept getting better and better.”
Playing without injured forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Quinton Howden, Hay had just 11 forwards at his disposal and thus played mix-and-match with his lines, which resulted in some ragged moments, especially early on. Hay was trying to get everybody some ice time, but also wanted to see how the chemistry between certain players might evolve. About the best that can be said right now is it’s still a work in progress.
“I think we have to get better in the neutral zone,” said Hay. “Playing against Europeans, they really like to build up speed in the neutral zone. That’s an area we need to get more structured and disciplined in.”
Canada’s next exhibition is Thursday in Red Deer against Switzerland. In the meantime, they’ve headed back to Banff for more practices and team building.
Canada will meet the Finns again in the tournament opener on Boxing Day in Edmonton, where Gibson - a Los Angeles Kings’ second-rounder last June - figures to get the start again. In the past, European players sometimes came over to the world junior and were awestruck by the experience. The hockey world is shrinking fast.
“Of course it’s a big experience coming here to the world juniors,” said Gibson, who speaks English, with a charming French-Canadian accent. “It’s the first time I come here and playing (in front of) almost a full building here, it’s something special.
“Living here for about four years now and watching Team Canada play and now playing against Team Canada, that’s a big thing and I’m really excited about it. You have to play at your best in these types of games. Even if it’s just an exhibition game, you want to get at your best at the beginning of the game. I was a bit nervous, but once I got those saves under the way I felt a lot more relaxed and I was ready to go.”
As for Finland’s chances, Gibson suggested: “I don’t want to jinx us but I think we can be really in the top. We have a good team. We’ve got guys who can score a lot of goals and we can play defensively. Tonight we proved that we can actually play against the top teams in the tournament.”