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Valimaki impresses in first clash for Flames in Young Stars Classic

PENTICTON, B.C. — Calgary Flames first-rounder Juuso Valimaki figures there might have been a few tears back home in Finland.

There should have been a lot of smiles, too.

The 18-year-old Valimaki was among the standouts for the Flames in Friday’s opening clash at the 2017 Young Stars Classic, finding the back of the net with a sneaky snapshot and impressing with his poise and puck smarts in a 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers prospects at South Okanagan Events Centre.

“In my opinion, he was our best player on the ice,” said Stockton Heat coach Ryan Huska, whose duties as skipper of the Flames’ affiliate include running the bench at the annual four-team prospect tournament in Penticton.

“He was noticeable on almost every shift, and we talked about that this morning — that’s the way you have to play here. You have to make sure people will recognize your name and number on your back, so you have to do something all the time.

“And I thought he played really well in a lot of different areas.”

You certainly noticed No. 42 on Calgary’s side, and usually for the right reasons.

It’s often the 20-somethings who stick out at the Young Stars Classic, but Valimaki — the Flames’ first-round holler, No. 16 overall, in June — was absolutely deserving of the postgame praise from Huska.

The highlight came early in the middle stanza, when the blonde blue-liner was set up by crash-and-bang winger Zach Fischer and zipped a glove-side shot past Oilers starter Dylan Wells from the high slot.

“It was a great moment, for sure,” said Valimaki, a point-per-game guy last winter with the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans. “I got a great pass from Fisch and I just thought, ‘I gotta shoot.’

“It went in, and it was definitely a goal to remember.”

Not just a goal to remember for the kid.

In the wee hours of the morning back home, his proud parents — Tommi and Mia —must have been beaming as they witnessed that snipe on the webcast.

Calgary Flames Juuso Valimaki checks Edmonton Oilers Joe Gambardella during the NHL Young Stars Classic hockey action at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton, BC. Richard Lam/Postmedia

“They always watch,” Valimaki said. “My dad hasn’t missed a game in two years in Tri. All the games are at 5 a.m., but he hasn’t missed a game. And my six-year-old brother usually watches them, too.”

And don’t forget mom.

“She was probably crying when I scored,” Valimaki said. “Even though it’s just the first game of Young Stars, she was probably crying.”

American Hockey League all-star Mark Jankowski, a 27-goal marksman as a minor-leaguer last season and now a serious candidate for a full-time job at the Saddledome, had Calgary’s other strike in Friday’s loss, going top shelf on an odd-man rush.

Medicine Hat Tigers alum Chad Butcher scored twice and added an assist for the Oilers, who tallied three times in a span of just two minutes and five seconds early in the third to flip the script.

Red Deer Rebels graduate Evan Polei provided the go-ahead goal, fooling Flames netminder Tyler Parsons with a nifty deflection, while Kirill Maksimov added some insurance.

“Personally, I felt good out there,” Valimaki said. “But I hate losing, so it’s always tough to lose, especially that way. We were playing good for two periods and then a little dark moment there for five minutes and they scored three.

“Whatever you play, whenever you play, it’s always tough to lose.”

Wins and losses, though, don’t matter much in the pre-season prospect showcase.

The Flames’ higher-ups have challenged the 26 hopefuls in Penticton to separate themselves from the pack, and Valimaki is off to a nice start.

“He looks like a man out there right now and he’s got the appearance when you watch him play that he wants to make a difference when he is on the ice,” Huska said. “I think when you’re young and you’re elite for your age, you have to have that swagger, if you want to call it that, and he does seem to have that.”

The Flames’ prospects will practise Saturday in Penticton and are back in action for Sunday’s matinee against the tournament host Vancouver Canucks.

wgilbertson@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

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