Teemu Selanne (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
The Finns resume their role as perpetual dark horse thanks to goaltending, chemistry and all-around feisty play. But can they overcome the talent of the big boys to get into the medals?
A lot of Finland’s go-to players are a lot like their country – small, mighty and irrepressibly determined. Since the NHL began sending its best players to Olympics, no team has reached the podium more often.
The Finns will never, ever be considered a gold medal favorite. That has something to do with the fact that for every Finnish player in the NHL, Canada could put together an entire roster. But the Finns are never an easy out, either. They have among the best goaltenders in the world and a group of players with an esprit de corps that always makes them a formidable foe.
If there’s one area where the Finns are every bit as good as any country in the world, it’s in goal. Young stoppers are coached exclusively by goaltending instructors from the time they first strap on the pads and the results have been startling. Tuukka Rask has the line on the No. 1 job in Sochi and gives the Finns a netminder with a lot of big-game experience, having played in the Stanley Cup final last season. Projected backup Antti Niemi has a ring from 2010. And while its elite player pool might be small, that might actually be an advantage for Finland. The small core of loyal players gives the Finns instant team chemistry because most of them have played with each other in international tournaments for years. In a short, intense tournament, the ability to come together quickly is an advantage that should not be minimized or overlooked.
Goaltending and chemistry will be extremely important for Finland, a team that will play a grinding game and struggle to score goals. Finland does not have a single player among the top 50 scorers in the NHL and has only four skaters in double figures in goals. There are a lot of hard-working, gritty players, but not much in the way of production. Jussi Jokinen has put up good numbers with Pittsburgh, but beyond that, the pickings are slim. Finnish players have historically been good in shootouts, which could turn out to be a boon during the playoff rounds. Finland will likely lean on Leo Komarov, who is playing in the Kontinental League, for secondary offense.
On defense, veteran Kimmo Timonen will be the headliner. The Finns will miss Joni Pitkanen, who is out for the year with an injury. In fact, Finland has only four defensemen who have played in the NHL this season and two of them – Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sami Vatanen of the Anaheim Ducks – are rookies.
Many things will have to fall into place for the Finns to reach the podium, but it’s not just circumstance that they often do just that. It’ll be easy to cheer for them, particularly since Teemu Selanne will almost certainly be appearing in international competition for the last time. And after all, who doesn’t love an underdog?
WHAT HAS TO GO RIGHT?
Finland will rely on its one true advantage over its competition, goaltending, to steal games. Tuukka Rask or Antti Niemi could easily be the star of the tournament. And if the Finns’ grinding forwards and mobile defense corps keep the games tight-checking, everything will go according to plan and Finland will win plenty of 2-1 games. One sneaky edge Finland could have: young, fresh legs. The Suomi will bring teenagers Olli Maatta and Aleksander Barkov. The latter wasn’t born when Teemu Selanne made his Olympic debut.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
If the Finnish goaltending falters even the slightest amount, this team has no chance to make a deep run in the tournament. The Finns will struggle to put the puck in the net consistently. They boast a quietly mobile blueline, but the group lacks size and can be dominated in the physical game. In addition to Maatta and Barkov, Finland has a ton of green players, including Sami Vatanen and Mikael Granlund. It’s possible this team relies on too many youngsters and is overwhelmed in the spotlight.
THN PREDICTION: 4th
WHAT HAPPENED IN VANCOUVER 2010?
Finland went 2-1 in group play, scoring 10 goals and allowing just four. In the quarterfinal, the Finns topped the Czech Republic 2-0 before falling to the Americans in the semifinal by a score of 6-1. Finland bounced back in the bronze medal game, however, topping Slovakia 5-3 for third place. In the second game of the tournament, Teemu Selanne became the all-time scoring leader with his 37th point.
A BRIEF OLYMPIC HISTORY
Finland, for all its recent Olympic success, played an often forgotten role in Team USA’s 1980 Olympic victory in Lake Placid, N.Y. The ‘Miracle on Ice’ is popularly regarded as America’s triumphant win over the Soviet Union, but Finland provided just as much trouble as the Soviets in the final round-robin game. Team USA clinched its gold medal against a Petri Skriko-led Finland squad that carried a 2-1 lead into the third period. The Finns collapsed under the pressure and the Americans rallied to win 4-2. Finland ended up finishing fourth in the tournament.