HELSINKI – The fans may be advised to get a game program in their hand when they watch the first games of the Finnish national team, and they’re excused if they don’t know all the players. Especially if they haven’t followed the Finnish SM-liiga. This year, Finland will have over a dozen players making their World Championship debut – on home ice, no less.
They may not be the brightest of stars, and they’re not even a young, up-and-coming group – the average age is closer to 30 than 25 – but what they are is a hard-working team.
And as we’ve seen many times in the past, a team like that can go far.
If there’s one thing Finland has, it’s good goaltenders. This time around, the goaltending trio comes straight from the Finnish league. Atte Engren returned to TPS for this season, after two years in the AHL, and played a good season, posting a 92.4 save percentage in 47 games. His former TPS teammate Joni Ortio was on loan from the Calgary Flames, and ended up playing more than any other goalie in the SM-liiga this season.
And the true wild card may be Antti Raanta, who will be making his national team debut –and was both the regular season and the playoffs MVP as he backstopped Ässät Pori to the club’s first Finnish title in 35 years. He led the league in save percentage in both the regular season (94.3) and the playoffs (95.5), and also posted the best GAA in both the regular season (1.85) and the post-season (1.33).
Tuukka Mäntylä will be making his first World Championship appearance since 2007, a sign that not everything has gone right in Finland – except for Mäntylä himself, who played a dominant role in Tappara as his team went to the SM-liiga final. Finland has three returning 2011 World champions on the team – Lasse Kukkonen, team captain, Sami Lepistö, and Ossi Väänänen – but is missing a quarterback from the blueline.
The defense is the experienced part of the team as only two players – Janne Jalasvaara and Ilari Melart – will be making their World Championship debut, and of those, Jalasvaara is 29 years old. No spring chicken, in other words, but there are no spring chickens on this team. Melart, at 24, is the youngest defenceman on the team.
Finland’s opening game against Germany is hugely important for the inexperienced team to get a good start to the tournament. Half the forwards will be making their World Championship debut on Friday, on home ice, and a loss might become a burden. Even for a 32-year-old player like Ville Viitaluoma.
The SM-liiga’s top three Finnish-born scorers are on the team. Juha-Pekka Haataja won the scoring title with 59 points in 60 games, Viitaluoma finished third and Sakari Salminen fourth in the scoring race, with 56 and 55 points, respectively. Haataja and Salminen finished one-two in goal scoring, with 28 and 24 goals.
There are no proven natural snipers on the team, and the team may have to work hard for its goals.
Veteran leadership – and goals – is expected to come from Juhamatti Aaltonen, Antti Pihlström, and Janne Pesonen, three 2011 World champions, and Niklas Hagman, a three-time Olympian.
It’s the end of the road for Jukka Jalonen. Since taking over from Doug Shedden in 2008 – having worked as Shedden’s assistant since fall 2007 – Jalonen has coached Finland to an Olympic bronze and a World Championship gold in his five tournaments. Jalonen, who took over SKA St. Petersburg in mid-season, knows what it takes to go all the way – and how little it takes for things to go off the rails.
Will Jalonen be even more driven to go out on top? One thing is certain: this team will play with discipline and Jalonen doesn’t want to appear as a lame duck before leaving the team.
Finland will claw their way into the playoff stage, thanks to goaltending, and disciplined play. The other top teams’ talent and skill level will probably be too much for the Finns.