COLOGNE – No Teemu, no Saku, no Mikko, no Miikka... no cry. For years, Finnish hockey inner circles have dreaded the day when the stars of the 1990s retire and the day has come. Teemu Selänne and Olli Jokinen have retired from national team duty, Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, Toni Lydman, and Jarkko Ruutu declined the invitation to join the team citing personal reasons, and Mikko Koivu and Tuomo Ruutu were injured.
Like most of the major hockey nations, Finland will ice a team that’s almost completely different from the one that won the bronze at the Vancouver Olympics. In fact, only four players were on the preliminary roster, and of those, forward Jarkko Immonen played only ten minutes in the tournament.
It may be a brand new team, with nine players making their World Championship debuts in Germany, but it still plays the same way Finland always plays: hard, never giving up, and trusting that the goalie will come up big.
That said, there are still some familiar faces on the Finnish team. Defenceman Petteri Nummelin plays in his 15th World Championship, starting from the 1995 tournament which Finland won, and missing only once since then, in 2008. Sami Kapanen returned to Team Finland after a seven-year absence last year, and is back for more as the team captain.
No problems there. That could be the end of the evaluation. So what if the Vezina winner wasn’t available, if the Jennings trophy winner was injured, or if the best goalie in the 2006 Olympics declined invitation to camp. Even with two Finnish goalies still in the run to win the Stanley Cup, Jukka Jalonen didn’t have to worry.
Even with no Miikka Kiprusoff, Niklas Bäckström, Antero Niittymäki, Tuukka Rask, and Antti Niemi, he could just turn to a goalie who recorded 32 wins in the NHL this season, and have the KHL champion back him up.
Enter Pekka Rinne and Petri Vehanen.
Rinne, the tall and lanky goaltender, was the team’s starter at the 2009 World Championship in Switzerland where he played six games and posted a 1.93 goals against average, third best in the tournament, behind Canada’s Chris Mason and Belarus’s Andrei Mezin.
The Nashville Predator has another stellar season behind him, fresh off his first career NHL post-season.
Petri Vehanen started the season with Lukko Rauma, but when AK Bars Kazan came knocking with a big bag of money under their arm, the clubs and Vehanen agreed on a transfer. The Russian team didn’t have to regret their signing as Vehanen led the team to the KHL championship. Lukko, on the other hand, lost a ten-point lead in the standings and was ousted from the playoffs in the first round. Vehanen made his World Championship debut in 2008 when he played one game, against Norway.
At first glance, the Finnish defence doesn’t seem too intimidating. All eight defencemen play in the European leagues. Half of them get their paychecks from Swedish clubs, two play in Finland. Their average height is 180 centimetres, and average weight 83 kilos.
Not something to get scared about in the corner, maybe.
But Finland’s defence is based on good puck control, and everybody on the ice sticking to the game plan. Oh, and, the good old Finnish sisu, the combination of guts, grit, and desperation.
Petteri Nummelin will be a lethal weapon on the powerplay, but don’t be surprised if you see just 18-year-old Sami Vatanen take the point. The youngster moves well - remember his end-to-end rushes at the World Juniors? - And he’s got a great shot that he likes to fire often.
Lasse Kukkonen and Janne Niskala are the two returning Olympians in Team Finland’s defence.
Probably the first name that coach Jalonen wrote down when he started to draft the World Championship roster was Jussi Jokinen. The Carolina Hurricanes forward was the best Finnish goal scorer in the NHL this season, and the only one to lit the red light 30 times. His 65 points in 81 games were also a personal record – but not good enough to take Jokinen to the Olympics.
Jokinen, Kapanen, Antti Miettinen, Juhamatti Aaltonen, Petri Kontiola, and Jarkko Immonen are looked to for offence. Coach Jalonen must also be cheering for the San Jose Sharks to beat the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL playoffs. That would send Valtteri Filppula to Germany, and give him the first-line center he now doesn’t have.
Aaltonen was tied for lead in goal scoring in the Finnish SM-liiga, and Immonen was third in team scoring with AK Bars Kazan, so there’s potential. Now is a good time to turn it into something concrete.
Jukka Jalonen is in his third World Championship, and his second as the head coach. He, and then-head coach Doug Shedden led Finland to a bronze medal in Quebec City in 2008. Last year, Finland was sent packing in the quarterfinals, after a loss to Team USA, but in the Olympics, Jalonen got the sweet taste of medal in his mouth again.
It was no walk in the park, though, and Jalonen was publicly critical about some of the players not buying into his game plan. In Germany, he has a group of young - if also inexperienced - players that will surely do what is asked of them. This time, Team Finland is just that: a team.
Petteri Nummelin and Sami Kapanen are ten years younger than coach Jukka Jalonen, and twenty years older that Sami Vatanen, the youngest player on the team. (To be fair to the veterans, they’re only 18 years older). But as we know, none of that matters in the locker room.
With good goaltending, a disciplined play, sticking to the game plan, and leaving everything they’ve got on the ice, Finland shouldn’t have any problems getting to the big quarterfinal game – and beyond.