BRATISLAVA – Last year, Finland won bronze medals in the Vancouver Olympics, but got ousted from the World Championship in the quarter-final, just like in 2009 in Switzerland. The Finns last left the World Championship tournament with a smile on their faces in 2008, when the team beat Sweden in the bronze medal game.
Those two last medal teams have a few things in common. Or, more accurately: a few players. Mikko Koivu and Tuomo Ruutu were on both the 2008 World Championship and the 2010 Olympic teams, but not on the 2009 and 2010 World Championship teams. That’s a pattern.
They’re on the team now.
In fact, Koivu and Ruutu won the U18 World Championship in 2000 - together with Jarkko Immonen, also in Slovakia. Since then, Koivu has never left an international tournament without a medal.
That’s a positive for Team Finland that’s almost desperate to get back into the medal round. Without the Olympic bronze, the alert status would be red, now it’s simply orange. Finland will be hosting the tournament in 2012, and even if the players don’t (have to) think about such things, the tournament organization is surely keeping fingers cross for a good tournament in 2011, to kick off their ticket sales.
Last year, Finland had three NHL players in the World Championships. This year, there are five on the preliminary roster, with some possible additions on their way.
A medal in Bratislava would give the coaching staff some peace of mind. And they’d need it.
In the last five years, Finland has produced one Vezina Trophy winner (Miikka Kiprusoff, 2006), another Vezina candidate (Pekka Rinne, 2010), and a William M. Jennings Trophy winner (Niklas Bäckström, 2007). Oh, the Stanley Cup was won with a Finnish goalie in 2010 (Antti Niemi).
None of the above mentioned goalies will play in Bratislava, being either still busy with the Stanley Cup playoffs, or being injured or fatigued.
The good news is that Finland still has Petri Vehanen, who recorded the KHL’s best save percentage this season, 92.7, in his 43 games with Ak Bars Kazan. Vehanen played three games in the 2010 tournament, backing up Pekka Rinne. This time, it’s his net.
The Finnish defence is a mix of SM-liiga (Ossi Väänänen, Jyrki Välivaara), Elitserien (Pasi Puistola, Topi Jaakola), the KHL (Janne Niskala, Lasse Kukkonen), and the NHL experience. Ossi Väänänen, Sami Lepistö, Anssi Salmela, and Janne Niskala were also on the 2008 team and are now expected to lead the way.
Only Välivaara is making his World Championship debut, so the backend should have the experience to get the job done. The lack of right-hand shots will force the Finns to get extra creative on the power play.
Mikko Koivu is doing double duty for his country as the 28-year-old center recently reported for the Army to do his compulsory military service. Returning to base camp with a medal around his neck would surely earn him a leave or two. By his side, he will have Tuomo Ruutu, 28, like in some many tournaments before. Without Koivu and Ruutu playing their best game, Finland won’t have a chance, as the depth drops dramatically after the top line.
Besides Ruutu and Koivu, only Jesse Joensuu, making his first World Championship appearance, plays in the NHL. Five of the forwards play in the KHL, and four in the Finnish SM-liiga.
One of them is HIFK’s Mikael Granlund, 19, also playing in his first World Championship. The Minnesota Wild’s first-round pick in 2010 collected 16 points in 15 post-season games – tied for league lead - en route to the Finnish title.
When Jukka Jalonen celebrated the beginning of the new millennium, he may also have been the only person in the world to think he’d ever coach the Finnish national team. Back then, he had been fired from his two last coaching jobs in the SM-liiga, and he found himself coaching a season in Italy, and two in Newcastle, in the British league. Not exactly where the Finnish federation goes to looking for head coaches - even if chairman Kalervo Kummola has famously told publicly how he found head coach Curt Lindström in a hotel bar after the World Championships in Germany 1993.
Jalonen returned to Finland, coached HPK Hämeenlinna to one Finnish title and four bronze medals, and got the call to the national team, first as an assistant to Doug Shedden, and then taking over at the 2009 World Championships.
His first two World Championships have ended in the quarterfinal. Third time’s the charm?
The Finns, as a nation, are convinced that they’ve never got a bounce go their way in a big tournament. If a stick can snap into two in an Olympic final against Sweden, and create a scoring chance for the Swedes, it will, they think.
Last year, Finland lost their quarterfinal against the Czechs in a shootout. In 2009, Team USA scored three goals in a span of three minutes and 49 seconds to send Finland packing. They’ve been so close without getting past the quarter-final.
The team’s good enough to play for medals but a World Championship is a tricky business and this year, it might again come down to one lucky bounce. If it goes their way, Finland will come home with a medal.