Petri Kontiola won't stop believing. For the gold medal game against Russia, he's holding on to a feeling.
Things did not start well for Finland at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. An 0-2 start with losses to Latvia and Russia was cause for concern. Still, after a 4-2 loss to Russia, the most optimistic member of the team was Petri Kontiola. He thought that the team still had more than just a chance at qualifying for the playoff round but advancing deep into the tournament.
Now more than a week later, Kontiola has been proved right. Finland is now in the gold medal game facing Russia at Minsk Arena. A scenario that seemed unlikely a week ago.
“I said earlier in this tournament that I thought we would make it through (to the playoff round).” Kontiola said after Finland clinched a spot in the finals with a 3-0 win over the Czech Republic. “We were working really hard every game and I really believed we would get some results. I think because we did, this is why we’re here.”
The slow start to the tournament for Finland led to plenty cause for concern. They were being written off as not one of Finland’s best teams at the World Championships. They were missing highly skilled players who can lead the way. They just weren’t that good. So was the conventional wisdom.
“I think we play better when we are underdogs,” said Kontiola. “I think that is a good thing for us. Teamwork and chemistry have improved over the last two weeks.”
Central to that improved teamwork and chemistry has been the play of Kontiola and fellow forward Jori Lehtera. They are 1-2 in scoring leaders for Finland, combining for six goals and 19 points. Two of Kontiola’s three goals have been game winners.
“Our four lines work hard and have the same strategies. Did I do anything special? I don’t think so but we worked hard as a team every night and that’s what's been most important.”
Though he won’t accept the praise, he does give it to Lehtera much credit for helping the Finnish revival.
“He’s a great player for us.” Kontiola said of his teammate. “Some would say we don’t have any big names here but he’s doing great things for us and we are lucky he came. He’s a big part of our team.”
Equally, Kontiola praises the play of Pekka Rinne. With each win that brought Finland back into the tournament, the common denominator in speaking with players after games has been the importance of Rinne in keeping the team close and allowing them a chance to win.
Rinne and Russian netminder Sergei Bobrovski have arguably been the best two goaltenders of the tournament. Bobrovski has won seven of his starts; Rinne has won five.
“Our goalie is tremendous and has done everything right for us. I think he’s come over and played like the elite NHL goaltender he is. When you know that your goaltender can keep you in the game, it builds confidence throughout the team.”
Finland has come all the way back. Despite having to rely on other teams not being able to qualify for the quarterfinals, Finland not only made it they proved they belong. Now as they head to the gold medal game there is little time for preparation.
Finland will have to draw upon much of what has been successful over the recent past. They will not attempt to get into a run and gun contest with Russia as that will be counterproductive. They will, however, attempt to sustain the effort that’s brought them this far.
“We know we don’t have as many skilled guys as Russia so we don’t want to try and outchance them but play defense first and stay out of the penalty box.” Kontiola said of what they need to be successful.
In looking back at the group stage of the tournament, Kontiola has erased his personal databanks about the early Preliminary Round results.
“I don't remember the game against Russia earlier (in the tournament).” He said matter of factly.
That’s probably a good move. A clean slate is in order. Today’s game is the last of the tournament. All that have come before won’t influence the outcome, only the game plan of each side.