Liiga Review: Joona Luoto went from Winnipeg to being the Liiga MVP

LIIGA / Artikkeli
Joona Luoto returned to Finland and was awarded with a championship.
Kuva © Tiia Mahkonen
The Liiga season 2021−22 came to an end with Tappara winning the championship. TPS took second place second year in a row, and Ilves took home its first bronze medal in 21 years.

During the playoffs, Tappara had been called anaemic and an underachiever. The team did acknowledge this as well but gave credit that even with poorer games, they still managed to get the win.

In the final series against TPS, Tappara was everything but that.

Tappara was in a 3−0 series lead going into the fourth game and everyone expected them to sweep TPS in four. But TPS wasn't going to give up that easily, and goaltender Andrei Kareev earned his fourth shutout of the playoffs.

In the fifth game in Tampere, former Winnipeg Jets player Joona Luoto came in blazing, scoring the championship winning lone goal 35 seconds into the first period.

Luoto with the youngster Petteri Puhakka and captain Otto Rauhala formed the Tappara's fourth line, which turned out to be the team's best line throughout the playoffs. When Luoto was asked in C More's post-game interview what made his line so great, he didn't exactly know the answer.

− I suppose, it's not easy for the opposing team players to battle against us when we don't know what we're doing on the ice ourselves, he joked.

Even if it was partly luck, the greatness of the line allowed Luoto to be named the Liiga playoffs most valued player, ahead of the team's goaltender Christian Heljanko, who blocked shots with a 92,9 percent accuracy. Luoto earned his title by scoring eight goals and assisting nine in 14 games.

TPS fell short with their goal-scoring throughout the series. They couldn't score more than four goals in the entire five-game series. Not even the first line Mikael Pyyhtiä, Markus Nurmi and Juuso Pärssinen seemed to be as dominant as before.

Despite the loss, TPS's young players had a strong showcasing in the playoffs. In the semifinals round against Ilves, the Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Pyyhtiä, scored a hat-trick, which made him the fifth-youngest hat-trick scorer in the Liiga playoffs.

Former Ottawa Senators draft pick Nurmi, on the other hand, put up 19 points in the playoffs, which is the new TPS organisation record. With four goals and 15 assists Nurmi passed such names as the current Czechia men's national team head coach Kari Jalonen and former Montréal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu.

Ilves captain Eemeli Suomi led his team's bronze game celebrations.
Kuva © Jarno Hietanen

Ilves and KooKoo were eager to win bronze

KooKoo managed to surprise Tappara in the semifinals by taking the first win of the series right in front of Tappara's home crowd. No one had probably expected the team, who had played nine playoff games within 16 days, to come in as fresh and fast as they did.

But as the semifinals went on and KooKoo lost defencemen Petteri Nikkilä and Eero Teräväinen to season-ending injuries, it wasn't surprising that Tappara took a 4−1 series victory.

Whereas KooKoo had climbed its way up to the top four from the qualifier round, Ilves had stayed on top of the league's standings throughout the season. Therefore, the team had high expectations out of the playoffs.

But in the series against TPS, it seemed like the young players couldn't find their footing in the playoffs. The regular season breakouts, Boston Bruins prospect Matias Mäntykivi and the undrafted Joonas Oden, both managed to score one goal each in the series. But otherwise throughout the playoffs they weren't producing at the same pace as they did prior.

Despite not making it to the finals, both teams were extremely eager to win the bronze game. For KooKoo, it would have been the first medal in Liiga, and for Ilves, the first one in 21 years.

Ilves led the game 3−0 after the first period, but KooKoo wasn't about to give them an easy ride to a medal. Ilves captain Eemeli Suomi's 3−2 goal ended up being the deciding factor and what led to the team's bronze game victory.

Overall, even if it was one of the league's most successful teams taking the championship title again after six years, this season's Liiga playoffs gave a glimpse that there are plenty of contenders for the future.

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