"I want to see Sidney Crosby because I think he is an amazing player and he plays with his heart and just loves the game so much."
-- Minttu Tuominen
Despite an arduous day of travel, the Pittsburgh Penguins took their European road show to Finland's capital and delivered the performance everyone hoped to see in defeating Jokerit, 4-1, here Thursday.
The sell-out crowd that jammed Hartwall Arena saw consistent flashes of the potent offense that carried this team to the Stanley Cup Final this past June.
The fact that it was the Penguins' stars – particularly Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – that carried the show was even more pleasing to these rabid hockey fans.
The Penguins practiced in Stockholm on Thursday morning before bussing to the airport in the afternoon for the 45-minute flight to Helsinki, arriving at the arena about 2½ hours before faceoff.
Despite the rain and cold in Helsinki, there was a sizeable contingent of fans waiting to greet the Penguins.
Lauri Kakko, a 26-year-old plastics manufacturer, skipped work to be on hand, traveling the 100 kilometers from his home in Lahti for the game. He was joined by his sister, Elina, 28.
"Because Crosby is a hockey god," he told NHL.com in halting English.
Well, Crosby certainly delivered on that billing, figuring in each of Pittsburgh's first two goals. Tyler Kennedy then scored an insurance goal on a sweet pass from Janne Pesonen, and Crosby added an assist on Pascal Dupuis' empty-net goal.
The appearance of native-son Pesonen in the starting lineup, playing aside Malkin and Jordan Staal, was an added bonus, one that was celebrated upon its announcement with cheers that equaled those received by Malkin in the introduction of the starting lineup.
Pesonen, fighting for the final spot on the Penguins' roster, became a hero in Finland with his play for Karpat the past two seasons. Last season he led the SM Liga in scoring before heading to Pittsburgh.
Jasmin Kaikusalo, an 18-year-old from Helsinki, also was among the early arrivals. She also wanted to see Crosby, but also Pesonen.
"Janne Pesonen is my little sister's hero and she could not be here because she could not get a ticket," said Kaikusalo, who was joined by Minttu Tuominen, also 18. Both went straight from school to Hartwall Arena.
None of the Crosby fans were disappointed Thursday as he was clearly the best player on the ice, creating several scoring chances for his linemates.
Malkin scored the game's opening goal on a first-period power play. He fired a rising shot from the point that threaded its way through a maze of bodies in front of the Jokerit goal before sneaking under the cross bar. Crosby earned the secondary assist.
When Malkin scored the game-opening goal even the most loyal Jokerit supporter clapped. Those with no allegiance to the Helsinki team – and there were many in the building – cheered wildly as the Penguins celebrated.
Ruslan Fedotenko, imported from the New York Islanders this summer and a candidate to play first-line minutes, helped his cause when he one-timed a Crosby pass into the net with just 10 seconds left in the first period to give the visitors a 2-0 lead.
The Finnish fans lapped up every second of the performance – even if it much of it was coming at the expense of the home club.
The hard-core Jokerit fans tried vainly to arouse support for Jokerit, especially when the home team carried a little more of the play in the second period, but it was to little avail. The majority of the crowd cheered every chance for the Penguins, making them the home team for much of this evening.
That changed slightly in the third period when Janne Lahti, who played briefly in the Montreal Canadiens' system, broke in alone on goalie Dany Sabourin and beat him with a quick wrist shot to the blocker side. Sabourin had relieved starter Marc-Andre Fleury halfway through the game.
Lahti's goal made a memorable night more interesting down the stretch, but the Penguins staved off the upset bid and held on for victory. Lahti even had a shorthanded breakaway later in the period, but his bid to tie the game at 2-2 found a goal post instead of twine.
As much fun as it was for the Finnish fans, it was a special moment for players from both teams.
Jokerit coach Glen Hanlon admitted that several of the younger members of his team were wide-eyed at the thought of facing Crosby and Malkin, joking that some might even still have posters of those two players on their bedroom walls.
Even the more experienced and more jaded Penguins knew they made history this blustery evening.