Canada’s Justin Pogge and Finland’s Tuukka Rask have more in common than just playing in tonight’s first semi-final. The two goalies are both Toronto Maple Leaf draft picks: Pogge was chosen in the third round in 2004, and Rask went in the first round in 2005. Both have had solid regular seasons for their respective club teams and have performed superbly at the 2006 IIHF World Junior Championship. Tonight, they both have the opportunity to elevate their games to another level. Who will seize his chance?
As the head coach of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, Brent Sutter has seen plenty of Pogge this year. He knows Pogge is capable of winning games all on his own. Though not invited to the summer evaluation camp held in Whistler, B.C. in August, the Calgary Hitmen netminder has been nothing short of spectacular this season. He’s amassed a sparkling 1.53 GAA in 27 games, with 22 wins and five losses.
Pogge has carried his excellent play into the World Juniors in Vancouver. He has the fifth-best save percentage in the tournament (.915) and the second-best GAA (1.50). His play against the Americans was commendable, given the hype that surrounded that New Year’s Eve contest. There, he stopped 22 of 24 shots in a 3-2 win. He’s rarely looked shaky.
He will need to be solid once again tonight, considering who’s guarding the net at the other end of the ice.
Tuukka Rask is fitting quite nicely into the mold recently set by Finnish goaltenders like Mikka Kiprusoff, Kari Lehtonen and Hannu Toivonen. He is yet another example of why Finland has become a dominant nation when it comes to producing goalies.
The highly touted first-round pick has lived up to most expectations. Backing up Ilves Tampere starting goalie Juha Pitkamaki in the Finnish SM-Liiga, the lightning-fast Rask has earned a 2.32 GAA and .922 save percentage in 15 games this year.
Rask has the second best save percentage in this tournament (94.78) and the fourth-best GAA (1.68). His quarter-final performance against Sweden was absolutely brilliant. He stopped all 53 shots and was named Finland’s Player of the Game in a 1-0 overtime win. If he still has more left to give and retains the “self-confidence” he mentioned in his post-game interviews, Canada will be in for a challenge.
Rask will be looking to redeem himself for a so-so performance against Canada in the opening game of the tournament, where he gave up five goals on 31 shots.
Pogge didn’t see that much action in the opening game. He faced only 17 shots that day, surrendering an Aki Seitsonen power play goal in the third.
Both of these goalies have shown the ability to get the job done in the crunch. And it doesn’t get much crunchier than a semi-final match.
If Finland is to win, Rask must duplicate his performance against the Swedes on Monday. While Canada hasn’t had to rely on goaltending as much, Pogge mustn't allow any untimely or weak goals.
Whatever happens, at least fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs will have something to look forward to!