MALMO, Sweden — When it comes to the world junior championship, the regrets still weigh heavy on Rasmus Ristolainen’s mind.
At last year’s tournament in Ufa, Russia, Team Finland was heavily favoured and hyped, based on their lineup and exhibition play. They had a number of highly touted prospects – Markus Granlund, Joel Armia, Sasha Barkov and, of course, Ristolainen.
Finland’s championship run ended in disaster. The Young Lions found themselves playing in the relegation round with the likes of Latvia, Slovakia and Germany. They finished a dismal seventh place.
It was an embarrassment and one Ristolainen has not forgotten. The big defenceman is back again this year and, as the eighth-overall pick at the June entry draft, he’s the most prominent name returning to Finland’s lineup. He’s adamant about preventing history from repeating itself this year in Sweden.
“It’s very important,” said the 19-year-old, who started the season in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres. “We are trying to show that we are a way better team than last year and that we can play way better hockey.
“It was a big disappointment last year and it’s not going to happen again.”
The first round pick of the Sabres was sent back to the Finnish junior team after suffering a concussion in the first week of December while playing in the American Hockey League for the Rochester Americans. He says he’s feeling “normal” again and is excited to be back playing for Finland.
“It’s very nice to be here,” said Ristolainen. “I was injured for a couple of weeks, so it’s nice to be back and come to the tournament where we can win something big.”
The Young Lions opened the tournament with a 5-1 victory over Norway – a team bumped up to the top WJC tier for the first time since 2011. For the most part, the Finns looked flat, soft and small against an opponent they should have very easily dominated. Russia, in their opener against Norway, crushed the rookie Norwegians 11-0. Finland was to play powerhouse Sweden next on Saturday, a team they will have no trouble finding another gear for given their rivalry.
After last year’s failure, the expectations aren’t nearly as high for Finland this time around. However, that hasn’t changed the kind of expectations Ristolainen has for his team.
“Maybe don’t have that kind of pressure from the media,” said the 6-foot-4, 219-pound blueliner. “But we know in the locker room we have a very good team and we can challenge for this (title).”
The native of Turku, Finland, says pressure or not, it doesn’t change the way he perceives what his team is capable of achieving at the tournament.
“Personally, I don’t think about that and I don’t care about that,” said Ristolainen, of the pressure on the Finns. “So I don’t think it makes any difference.”
The only thing that will make a difference for him and his teammates is finding redemption in 2014.
“There are a lot of guys who played (at the world junior championship) last year,” said Ristolainen.
“Everybody knows it feels awful.”