HELSINKI -- The first NHL regular-season game in Finland was so good that the Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Panthers made sure it lasted as long as possible and ended in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.
The NHL made its Finnish debut Friday before 12,056 fans at Hartwall Arena as the Panthers defeated the Blackhawks, 4-3 in a shootout in the first of two 2009 NHL Compuware Premiere Challenge games in Helsinki.
Fittingly, it was Finland's own Ville Koistinen who ended it with the winning goal in the shootout.
Koistinen, who enthusiastically acknowledged the cheers of the crowd after his shootout goal, said his moment in the spotlight was way more than he even dared to imagine in his most optimistic moment.
"I didn't dream anything about this," said Koistinen, who scored a goal during 4-on-4 play in the third period to tie the game at 2-all. "This is more than a dream."
Going second in the shootout, Koistinen broke in on Cristobal Huet and went backhand to roof a shot under the crossbar, giving Florida a 2-1 lead in the shootout competition, a lead that would hold when Patrick Sharp missed Chicago's third attempt.
"That's pretty much the only move I have," Koistinen said, breaking into yet another bemused smile. "Next time, I am going to do something else."
Koistinen was named the first star, beating out Florida goalie Thomas Vokoun, who made 52 saves, including 21 in a wild third period.
In any other game, Vokoun would have been the man of the match, but on this historic night in Finland he couldn't compete with Koistinen, the native son. His flair for the dramatic capped a night that won't soon be forgotten by the passionate hockey fans in this country.
"The building was great (tonight)," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "They had some excitement, they were cheering. They had some appreciation for the play. I thought the pace of the game was fast. For a first game I thought both teams had some energy. The puck was moving around the ice. Good response from the crowd and it was fun to be part of it."
It would have been more fun for Chicago if it had converted its huge advantage in shots -- 55 to 24 -- into a season-opening victory.
"It's a long season, so one loss -- we're not going to panic yet," said Jonathon Toews, who scored Chicago's only goal in the shootout. "We did some good things offensively. We had a lot of chances to put the game away. Even defensively we were good for the most part.
"Unfortunately we let them creep back into the game and hang around. And when you get to the shootout you never know what can happen. You could argue we deserved to squeak that one out. It’s a tough one. But we’ll take the point, build off it and have a better effort tomorrow night."
Patrick Kane, who scored Chicago's first goal and added an assist on Dustin Byfuglien's goal, was denied a chance to tie the shootout when Vokoun made his best save of the night, a flashing toe save to negate Kane's deke.
When it was over, Kane could only tip his helmet to Florida's goalie.
"He's a different goalie, that guy," Kane said. "He stands up in his net, some of the shots it's really weird how he takes them. But he's really good; he's a really good goalie."
Michael Frolik erased Kane's opening goal before Koistinen negated Byfuglien's goal. Then, what looked like a game-winner from Patrick Sharp was put on hold when David Booth made a wonderful individual effort to force a turnover and send a wrister blazing into the far corner.
Fortunately for the Hawks, they won't have to think too long or too hard about the things that went wrong -- an inability to finish their scoring chances and allowing Florida to erase three one-goal deficits are two things that jump immediately to mind.
That's because these same two teams will be back at it Saturday (12 p.m. ET, NHL Network-U.S., TSN2) right here in Hartwall Arena in the conclusion of the 2009 NHL Compuware Premiere Helsinki series.
But it is hard to imagine the second game approaching the drama here Friday night.
"This game was unbelievable," Koistinen said. "Score a goal, then score the game-winner. You can't ask for anymore."
-- Shawn P. Roarke, NHL.com