Joel Kiviranta is up with the Avalanche and thriving — just in time for a Stars reunion – The Athletic

DALLAS — Joel Kiviranta and the Colorado Avalanche will always be linked. His new Avalanche teammates — at least the ones who’ve been with the team since 2020 — know that.

“Well,” Cale Makar says when discussing his memories playing against the former Dallas forward, “I remember the obvious.”

How could he not?

In 2020, with teams in the Edmonton Bubble for the COVID-19-altered NHL playoffs, Kiviranta entered the Stars’ Game 7 lineup in their second-round series against Colorado, replacing the injured Andrew Cogliano. Up to that point, the Finn had appeared in only two postseason games: one in the round-robin set of games and one in the first round. He had only one NHL goal to his name.

What followed was one of the most random team-carrying performances in NHL history. With the Stars down a goal early in the second period, Kiviranta tipped in a Denis Gurianov shot to tie the game. Then, 10 seconds after Colorado took a late third-period lead, the Finnish forward batted in a Roope Hintz rebound to send the game to overtime.

“Joel f—ing Kiviranta!” Finnish broadcaster Antti Makinen yelled on his call of the game-tying goal, coining a nickname that’s followed Kiviranta ever since.

And he wasn’t done. In the overtime period, he got free in the slot and buried a pass, ending Colorado’s season and sending Dallas on in the playoffs. Stars players mobbed their newfound hero.

“A young guy coming in and scoring a hat trick, can’t really make that up,” says Cogliano, now Kiviranta’s teammate on the Avalanche. “He won the game single-handedly for Dallas — for us — to get us to the conference final. Pretty special moment.”

Kiviranta, who will play against the Stars for the first time in a regular season game on Saturday, jokes that the Avalanche got their revenge in 2022 when they won the Stanley Cup.

“They’re even now!” he says.

Though the 27-year-old Kiviranta grew up watching highlights of Alexander Ovechkin — “a machine for scoring goals,” he says — he’s known mostly for his penalty-killing and reliable defensive play. He went undrafted, but by the time he helped Finland to a World Championships gold in 2019, he had caught the attention of NHL clubs.

Dallas was one of the interested teams, and Kiviranta signed there, in part because of the large number of Finnish players on the Stars. He was especially familiar with Esa Lindell, with whom he played for Jokerit in their native Finland.

“You always knew what you were going to get when he was out there,” Lindell says.

That eventually made Kiviranta a regular in the Stars’ lineup. But after the Stars’ 2020 bubble run, which ended with a loss to Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final, Kiviranta’s play fizzled a bit under then-head coach Rick Bowness. Of the 16 Stars forwards who played at least 50 games combined in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, Kiviranta’s average time on ice was 15th.

“I think there were big expectations based on what he did in the bubble,” says Pete DeBoer, who took over as Stars head coach ahead of the 2022-23 season. “I think those expectations kind of snowballed on him and he didn’t have a great statistical year. We wanted to reset with him.”

Kiviranta’s career saw a revival under DeBoer. After playing a combined 82 games the previous two seasons, Kiviranta became a lineup regular last season, playing 70 games in the regular season and then 15 of Dallas’ 19 playoff contests. The coaches had a vision for his role that involved increased penalty kill responsibility, and Kiviranta embraced it.

With Kiviranta in the fold, the Stars had the NHL’s third-best penalty kill in 2022-23. Kiviranta was one of four Stars forwards to play more than 100 short-handed minutes, a massive increase from the combined 3:36 he played the two previous seasons.

“He took that and ran with it and I thought was one of the best penalty-killers in the league and really carved out a role in our group,” DeBoer says. “He was an integral part of what we did here.”

After scoring eight goals in his first three NHL seasons combined, Kiviranta found the net eight times last season. His skill set made it easy for DeBoer to play him on the ice. His personality made him a welcomed presence in the locker room.

“He was just a true professional,” Stars captain Jamie Benn says. “He brought it every game. He was a great person off the ice. He was very well-liked on this team because he had a great personality.”

Stars defenseman Jani Hakanpää had a close relationship with Kiviranta, his fellow Finn. The two always sat next to each other on the plane during road trips the past two seasons. Hakanpää described their travel routine as one that included everything from light-hearted conversations to watching TV shows to getting into some deep topics in each other’s lives.

“Now I just have an empty seat next to me,” Hakanpää says. “Sometimes it’s a bit lonely and I do miss him beside me there, doing little jokes and chatting around.”

Kiviranta’s fit in Dallas was even better because of the “tight five-man unit,” as Hakanpää put it, that was the “Finnish Mafia” last season.

“You could hear when they were coming because you’d hear Finnish around the corner,” says Avalanche forward Fredrik Olofsson, who played on the Stars last season.

The other four Finns — Lindell, Hakanpää, Hintz and Miro Heiskanen — all still keep in touch with Kiviranta and are happy for his new opportunity. But there’s certainly a void left in the Finnish Mafia without Kiviranta’s presence.

“He, for me, was the glue guy,” DeBoer says. “He was the guy that was always either making the joke or the brunt of the joke, but he was always in the center of everything with those guys. Just has a great personality, great energy.”

Now, with Dallas and Colorado early in what will likely be a season-long battle for the Central Division crown, Kiviranta’s old friends will have to play against him. Lindell says it’s tough seeing him on another team.

“He looked weird in that (Avalanche) jersey,” Miro Heiskanen says. “No. 94? Looked weird.”

Kiviranta’s path to joining the Avalanche wasn’t as smooth as his first postseason game against them. After Dallas, a team with multiple young forward prospects on the cusp, opted not to re-sign him this past summer, he joined the Avalanche on a professional tryout. Mikko Rantanen pitched him on Colorado, telling his fellow Finn that the Avalanche have something good going in Denver.

“Another guy who plays with grit,” Rantanen says. “He’s a good skater, can shoot the puck. An asset for sure.”

“A quiet guy but a really effective player,” Cogliano adds. “Kind of a typical Finn: Quiet, humble and a good hockey player.”

Kiviranta put together a good training camp, but there was a problem: He wasn’t alone. Olofsson, who played a season with Kiviranta in Dallas, locked up the fourth-line center job. Riley Tufte, another former Stars forward, made the opening night roster, too.

With that, all the NHL forward spots were taken. Colorado offered Kiviranta a chance to join the AHL team.

“He thought about it,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar says. “He searched around to see if there was an NHL job open. … We just expressed to him how much we liked him and how much we feel he fits a mold of our bottom-six and that he’d be able to come in and help us if there was an injury.”

Kiviranta says that, in the end, he had two choices. He could go back to Europe and play professionally, or he could go to the AHL with Colorado.

“I think that’s a decision that when you decide to go to Europe, it closes doors here,” Kiviranta says. “I didn’t even think about that.”

So he signed an AHL deal and reported to the Colorado Eagles, posting six points in 10 games. Rantanen, knowing Kiviranta was working hard as always, texted him every once in a while to check in. The star winger was happy Kiviranta chose to stick around the organization.

As Kiviranta strung together good games with the Eagles, Colorado’s NHL club started to deal with injuries, notably to forward Artturi Lehkonen, who went headfirst into the boards last week and hurt his neck. Tufte, who has been up and down between the NHL and AHL, got in three games, but the Avalanche sent him back to the Eagles after an 8-2 trouncing Nov. 11 at the hands of St. Louis.

That left an opening. When deciding who to call up to help fill Lehkonen’s void, the Avalanche relied on what they saw during training camp, as well as feedback from Eagles coach Aaron Schneekloth. Kiviranta had looked good at every stop, so the Avalanche signed him to a one-year, two-way contract with a $775,000 cap hit at the NHL level.

“I figured he’d be here at some point,” Cogliano says.

Adds Rantanen: “He’s an NHL player, even though he was playing in the AHL.”

He’s looked the part since joining the Avalanche. Bednar put him on a line with Cogliano and Olofsson, two of Kiviranta’s ex-Stars teammates, and in two games together the trio has given the coach exactly what he’s wanted. They’ve limited chances against and, Wednesday against Anaheim, exploded offensively. That started late in the second period, when Kiviranta won a puck battle behind the net and got the puck to Logan O’Connor, who set up Olofsson for a goal.

In the third, Kiviranta used his skating to split two defensemen and flung a puck through Lukas Dostal. He punched the air in excitement — a first goal with his new team under his belt. Bednar left his fourth line on the ice for another shift, and Kiviranta rewarded his faith, feeding Cogliano for Colorado’s second goal in a 21-second span. The public address announcer hadn’t even gotten through announcing the previous goal when Cogliano’s shot hit the net.

“It was just one shift when everything bounced perfectly,” a cheerful Kiviranta said postgame.

The final assist capped off the second three-point night of his career. For Kiviranta’s new club, it was a much happier occasion than his first one.

(Photo of Joel Kiviranta: Ashley Potts / NHLI via Getty Images)

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