Four years ago, after the Olympics in Vancouver, Olli Jokinen announced his retirement from the national team. One coaching change later he’s back.
After playing in Sochi, Jokinen will be one of just two NHLers on the team.
He’ll also be the captain, and entering his 11th World Championship, Jokinen is the undisputed leader of the team that has 15 players making their World Championship debut, and only five returning players from the Olympic bronze medal team.
Even with a whole new team on the ice, Finland will play its own brand of hockey that’s based on solid goaltending, team work, and a disciplined defence.
In Sochi, Finland had an impressive goalie trio in Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi, and Kari Lehtonen, but the fact that the Finns can enter a World Championship tournament with three other goalies and still consider the positions as a strength, speaks volumes of the quality of Finnish goaltenders.
The Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne will play in his third World Championship, and his first since 2010. Rinne has had problems with injuries, and missed four months of action this season, but played 15 games at the end of Predators season. The 31-year-old two-time Vezina finalist recorded two shutouts in his last seven games, and is ready to play.
Mikko Koskinen is known as a “three-meter Koskinen” in Finland, but that’s a result of a slight exaggeration of Tero Lehterä, a 1995 World Champion - and uncle to forward Jori Lehtera - who coined the term in his current job as a TV analyst. Koskinen is only two meters tall. He’s coming off an impressive season with Sibir Novosibirsk in the KHL where he posted a 93.9 save percentage and a 1.70 GAA in 41 regular season games, and followed it up with 92.8 and 1.98 in ten playoff games.
The third goalie is 19-year-old Juuse Saros, who backstopped Finland to a World Juniors gold in January.
When Jere Karalahti, 39, steps onto the ice in Finland’s opening game against Latvia, he will become the oldest player to play for Finland in a World Championship tournament, breaking Raimo Helminen’s record by a year. Karalahti, who played two years for Dynamo Minsk before joining Jokerit for this season, is a leader of the defence that has one recent Olympian - Juuso Hietanen - on it.
Five of the eight defencemen play in the Finnish league.
While four defensemen are making their World Championship debuts, two of them, Jyri Marttinen and Oskari Korpikari, have already turned 30 and two other rookies, Atte Ohtamaa and Ville Lajunen have turned 26.
It’ll be interesting to see how coach Westerlund can organize his defense. Before the tournament, Only Karalahti and Hietanen have scored goals at the World Championships, 13 and one, respectively.
Half of the forwards played in the KHL this season, and five forwards - Jokinen, Kontiola, Lehterä, Komarov and Jarkko Immonen - played on the Sochi team. That's a good foundation to build on when the rest are making their championship debuts.
Leo Komarov is the fifth-leading World Championship goal scorer on the team entering the tournament in Minsk. He’s scored two goals, five points in 30 World Championship games. The upside is that over half a dozen forwards are making their first World Championship appearances.
The offense will have to come from Olli Jokinen’s line and the line centred by Petri Kontiola, will carry a heavy load in the tournament. Kontiola, 29, won bronze with Finland in Sochi, and had a breakthrough tournament last year when he led the World Championship in points and goals, and was voted into the All-Star team and Best Forward.
Erkka Westerlund, the hockey professor, showed in Sochi what he and his staff can do. To be fair, the team that won Olympic bronze wasn’t exactly a group of Sunday players, but also not the strongest one on paper. This time Westerlund chose to give a whole new group of players a chance to show what they can do. Obviously, he trusts them.
Westerlund will step down after the season to take over Jokerit Helsinki in its inaugural season in the KHL. It’s noteworthy that four of the defensemen and two of the forwards on his team in Minsk will also play for Westerlund in the KHL next season.
Westerlund’s Finland will play a disciplined style of hockey in which defence comes first. As always, Finland’s success is built on solid defence and good goaltending.
It’s as if the Olympic bronze woke up the entire nation to realize that Finland is a true giant in hockey, and belongs in the Top Four, regardless of the tournament. The team trusts their coach, the coach believes in his team, and Finland enters the tournament with their heads up high, full of confidence.
And we all know how important confidence is in hockey.
Finland should have no problem getting into quarterfinal, and once there, anything is possible, we’ve seen that in the past. A medal wouldn’t be a surprise, but a gold would be.