QUEBEC CITY, Canada – Last year’s silver team, Torino Olympic’s silver team has been in seven World Championship finals since 1992, and won only once, in 1995. The tournament with the asterisk, thanks to the NHL lockout that made all NHLers unavailable to participate in the tournament. Should the Finns reach the final this time around, they’ll be desperate to go all the way. After all, silver’s for losers, right? Besides, Finnish GM Jari Kurri celebrates his birthday on May 18, and is worthy of a World Championship parade.
Finland is, and has always been, one of the world’s premier goalkeeper factory. How many other teams can choose between a Vezina winner, a Jennings award winner, and the guy who took them to the Olympic silver? Well, in fact, neither can Finland because Kiprusoff declined an invitation, and Niittymaki is not available. However, Niklas Backstrom has proved that he is a top NHL goalie, who can and does win games for his team. The Minnesota Wild goaltender posted a 92.0 save percentage and 2.31 GAA in the NHL regular season, and ranked easily in the top-10 in both categories. Barring Henrik Lundqvist’s arrival in Quebec, Backstrom might just be the best goalie in the tournament. He’s backed up by Tampa Bay Lightning’s young Karri Ramo, and Petri Vehanen, who had a stellar season in the Finnish SM-Liiga.
Besides solid goaltending, defence has always been one of the cornerstones of Finnish hockey. The first Finnish All-Stars were goaltenders and defencemen, such as Ilpo Koskela, Pekka Marjamaki, and they have been followed by Timo Jutila, Petteri Nummelin, and Kimmo Timonen in the recent years.
This year, Finland is lacking that go-to guy in defence, especially since Joni Pitkanen got injured a week before the tournament. However, look to youngsters Sami Lepisto (Washington/Hershey) and Ville Koistinen (Nashville) to provide the offensive punch, and former NHLer Ossi Vaananen and Mikko Luoma, voted Best Defenceman in the Swedish Elitserien, the defensive crunch.
Teemu Selanne got hooked on listening to his inner self, and kept the Finnish team management on pins and needles for weeks, doing his best Hamlet impersonation. To play or not to play? And to the delight of all Finns and Doug Shedden, the answer was yes.
Florida’s Olli Jokinen and Ville Peltonen, and Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu were as ready as ever. Jokinen is entering his tenth World Championship, Peltonen his 13th. Mikko Koivu, in turn, is emerging as the future first-line centre for Finland.
Finland enters the tournament with forwards that have proved they can play on the international level, but a real threat is missing. Getting Koivu, the elder, and having Dallas got ousted from the NHL Playoffs is a dream for Finland. That would give the team a great first line - Selanne, Koivu, Lehtinen - and would unite Jokinen with Niklas Hagman. Ten years ago, Jokinen’s pass got deflected off of Hagman’s pants into the net, clinching Finland the World Junior Championship. So far, though, it’s all just a dream.
Doug Shedden returns to Quebec where he played parts of an NHL season twenty years ago. A surprise choice for the job, Shedden was picked to teach Finnish players how to win. The Canadian way. In Canada. That approach worked the last time: Finns had a Swedish coach in the World Championships in Sweden – and won.
Shedden is a straight shooter who has a great sense of his team, he knows which buttons to press to get the players going, and what it takes to win the last game of the tournament. He also has a great supporting cast in Timo Lehkonen and Jukka Jalonen who’ve worked together for years in Finland. Jalonen will take over as head coach next season.
Looking back at the last two decades, the answer is simple: silver. Or, sixth. Finland will enter the quarterfinal stage with a team that looks different than the one it enters it with and a lot depends on the NHL playoffs results. If Finland gets past that game, it can go all the way.