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Finland's biggest strength is between the pipes

Thursday, 02.19.2009 / 1:00 AM / All-Access Vancouver

By Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor

There will be few Jari Kurri-type offensive talents on the Finnish roster for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. But Kurri, now the Finnish national team GM after a high-scoring career as Wayne Gretzky's right-hand man with the Edmonton Oilers, still should have the raw materials available to build a medal-contending team.

Like 2006, the Finns will rely on stellar goaltending, fundamentals and work ethic more than offensive firepower in its attempt to navigate through a crowded field of contenders.

Fortunately for coach Jukka Jalonen, the Finnish players remain true to the hard-working, fundamentally sound blueprint that has brought this small country far more international hockey glory than other countries its size.

Plus, the Finns might just have the best goaltending in the 12-team tournament. They certainly have the deepest crop of high-end goalies.

Jalonen can't help but pick a star in net with his three choices, but which star will be open for debate. Finland boasts three goalies that are No. 1s in the NHL -- Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom, Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and Toronto's Vesa Toskala -- and another two -- Nashville's Pekka Rinne and Philadelphia's Antero Niittymaki -- that are battling for that title.

In all, 10 Finnish goalies have made NHL appearances this season.

The Finns also have an excellent group of defenders, headlined by Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen, Vancouver's Sami Salo and Buffalo's Toni Lydman. So it really is no wonder that the Finns tend to build from the goal line forward when it comes to the national team.

It was a good enough formula to win a surprising silver medal in Turin in 2006. It certainly can make Finland competitive in Vancouver.

Goaltenders -- Niklas Backstrom, Miikka Kiprusoff, Pekka Rinne

This, by far, is the most difficult decision facing Jalonen in the run-up to the tournament.

There isn't a wrong decision in this dilemma, either. But if the chosen goalie doesn't play up to his potential, the second-guessers from Helsinki to Turku will be in full voice soon after the team packs its equipment bags.

Backstrom likely is the fan's choice at the moment, and it is hard to argue with that sentiment. He has been brilliant for Minnesota for the past 1 1/2 seasons and will be in the discussion for Vezina Trophy consideration this summer.

Backstrom has had some extensive playoff experience in Finland, but very little in North America or on the international stage. He has played in just 11 Stanley Cup Playoff games for the Wild.

Kiprusoff has 50 games of NHL playoff experience, including a run with Calgary to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. He also backstopped Finland to a silver medal at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, showing his pedigree to play big in big games.

How good is Finland's goaltending? Niittymaki was the starting goalie for Finland in 2006 and was named the tournament's MVP and best goaltender, but there is a good chance the 29-year-old might not make the 2010 team. Nashville's Rinne has burst onto the scene and could be the extra goalie traditionally groomed for future international competitions.

Defensemen -- Kimmo Timonen, Toni Lydman, Joni Pitkanen, Teppo Numminen, Sami Salo, Ossi Vaananen, Petteri Nummelin

Finland easily can roll three pairs of defensemen without a significant drop from first pair to third.

That's because virtually every one of Finland's elite defensemen is solid in his own end, while most possess some pretty impressive chops in the offensive zone. Most importantly, they all can skate pretty well.

Timonen headlines a stellar group as the power-play quarterback and top-pairing guy. Few defensemen can trigger the transition as effortlessly as Timonen, who is among the top 20 blueliners in assists this season. Plus, Timonen is used to playing in key situations, logging 25 minutes a game for Philadelphia.  

 
Pitkanen is another offensive maestro. The Carolina defenseman plays more than 25 minutes a game for the Hurricanes and has the most NHL goals this season (5) of any of Finland's candidates.

The rest of the defensemen in contention for Finland's roster are not offensive powerhouses, but know their way around the attacking zone. Buffalo's Numminen and Lydman, Vancouver's Salo and Philadelphia's Vaananen all have reached double digits in points this season.

Lydman is a fantastic skater who can be used as a shut-down defender, a role in which Salo excels, as well. Vaananen, meanwhile, has no aversion to banging bodies in the defensive zone, a role that will become crucial with the 2010 Games being played on the smaller NHL sheet. Numminen, who has battled back from heart surgery last season, already has won three Olympic medals while playing for Finland.

Kurri may also give Jalonen the luxury of having Nummelin at his disposal. Nummelin, who had brief NHL stints with Minnesota and Columbus, is starring for Swiss club HC Lugano. He might be the most offensively polished of Finland's seven defenders.

Forwards -- Teemu Selanne, Tuomo Ruutu, Mikko Koivu, Antti Miettinen, Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, Olli Jokinen, Niklas Hagman, Ville Peltonen, Niko Kapanen, Jukka Hentunen, Valtteri Filppula, Ville Leino

There will be little debate about the Finnish team's forwards, particularly the top nine. Whether or not that lack of tangible competition is a good thing is up for debate.

In fact, the only real selection Kurri faces among his top-end forwards is what to do if Selanne decides to retire. He struggled to decide if he wanted to play another season prior to the start of the 2008-09 season, but has been pretty good for the struggling Ducks in the 41 games in which he has appeared, scoring 17 goals and 34 points. He did, however, miss a good chunk of time with a quadriceps injury. Selanne will be 39 by the time the Olympics arrive.

There are few questions about the other players that will be counted upon to play prominent roles up front for Finland.

Carolina's Ruutu and Minnesota's Mikko Koivu are first-line forwards. Ruutu is having his best season since his rookie campaign (2003-04 with the Blackhawks), putting up 16 goals and 17 assists. Ruutu, the younger brother of Ottawa agitator Jarkko Ruutu, can play either wing or center.

Mikko Koivu is the younger brother of Finnish legend Saku Koivu of Montreal, who also should be on the Finnish team. Mikko Koivu, a center, is having a career season with 53 points in 54 games with the Wild.

Miettinen could ride shotgun for Mikko Koivu, something that happens in Minnesota. Miettinen is the Wild's second-highest scorer, behind Koivu, with 37 points.

There isn't much of a drop in talent from there as Jalonen likely will be calling upon the aforementioned Saku Koivu, Lehtinen of the Dallas Stars, Phoenix's Jokinen, Toronto's Hagman and Florida's Peltonen, who already has played for Finland in three Olympics and eight World Championships.

Other veterans in the mix include Kapanen, who played in the NHL for Phoenix, Dallas and Atlanta before joining AK Bars Kazan in Russia this season, and his KHL teammate, Hentunen. Kapanen has 27 points with his Russian club, while Hentunen has compiled 24 points. Shootout specialist Jussi Jokinen, who recently was traded to the Hurricanes, and the aforementioned Jarkko Ruutu also are in that veteran mix.

The Finns also have a nice crop of youngsters that should be sprinkled among the group of forwards, headlined by a pair of Red Wings.

Playmaking center Filppula, 24, has a bona fide shot to be one of the team's four centers. He has 23 assists and 29 points this season with the defending Stanley Cup champions. Leino, 25, has just been called up to the Red Wings, and has 5 points in his first eight games. Last season, he scored 77 points in just 55 games while playing for Jokerit in Finland.

Nashville's Antti Pihlstrom, 24, and Washington's Oskar Oskala, 21, also have outside chances to join any youth movement Kurri might initiate. Oskala, who has played just one NHL game for the Caps, shared the goal-scoring lead with four others players at the 2007 World Junior Championship.