HELSINKI -- At its best, hockey sets the stage for great stories. One magical hockey night can stay with people forever. Ville Koistinen returning to Finland with his new team, the Florida Panthers, and scoring the game-winning goal in a shootout in front of 12 000 roaring fans is one of those stories.
Friday was one of those nights.
"That's why you play. As an athlete, that's the moments you play for. You would be a long time gone if you didn't like moments like that," Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun said after Florida's 4-3 shootout win over the Chicago Blackhawks. "That's what it's all about -- when you can make a difference. That's why we play the game."
Koistinen has done more than his share to promote the Compuware NHL Premiere games in Finland. In the Tampere exhibition game last Monday, he had more than 60 friends and family members in the stands. For Friday's regular-season opener, he rented a van to take some 20 members of his inner circle to Helsinki to see him play; a similar van is supposed to make the trek from Tampere on Saturday as well.
That's enough for one man.
But the hockey gods wanted to make the night a little more special than that, so they helped Florida come back from a one-goal deficit three times -- twice in the third period, with Koistinen the goal that tied the game 2-2 in the third period. David Booth's late goal sent the game into a shootout -- in which Koistinen got the game-winner.
Koistinen lifted the puck upstairs with a backhander, so high, and so close to the crossbar that he wasn't sure if it was a goal until he glanced back and saw the referee make a nod. Koistinen raised his arms toward the ceiling, skated towards the bench, and having high-fived everybody, gave a little extra celebratory fist pump for special effect.
"It was an unbelievable game. This is more than a dream. First, to play in the NHL, and to play an NHL game in Finland, and to score a goal, and then a game winning goal ... It's unbelievable," Koistinen said.
Seeing Koistinen's homecoming was a big kick for the whole team.
"It couldn't have happened to a better person, the whole team was behind him, especially since he's a new guy on the team. This was awesome," Booth said.
After the game, Koistinen was smiling, and patiently answering all questions about his fantastic night, while instinctively trying to not get too excited, or at least not to show it.
Like that little fist pump after the goal.
"He had to (celebrate the goal). Why not? Enjoy the moment. It only happens once," said Booth.
For coach Peter DeBoer, sending Koistinen out for the shootout wasn't a difficult choice.
"Ville made a good move in the Tampere game, he just didn't score, so I wanted to give him another chance," he said.
Koistinen's take on his backhander was more deadpanned.
"That's pretty much the only move I have," Koistinen said. "The ice was a little better than in Tampere where I missed so I could do it the way it's supposed to be done."
"He's great at penalty shots, and we got another big goal from him, too. Two great things from him tonight – and he played as a forward, and he isn't a forward, so hats off to him," Booth said.
With the flu having decked a few Panthers earlier this week, the coaching staff wanted to dress seven defensemen in case one of the recently recovered ones couldn't make it through the entire game. Koistinen played the game as a forward, something he also did last year with the Nashville Predators.
"It was a surprise because I haven't practiced it at all this season. I like playing as a forward, and as long as it gets me ice time, that's fine. The fourth line is there to give the first two lines a breather, and keep the puck out of our own net. Any goals that we score are just an added plus," he said.
After the game, Koistinen came back out to meet the crowd as the game's first star. He threw pucks to kids in the stands, skated around the rink, raised his stick, and thanked everybody, clapping his hands. Then he disappeared into the dressing room.
"He's probably not going to be able to sleep tonight," Booth said.
Maybe he doesn't have to -- not when he's living a dream.