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Often overlooked, Finland could surprise at Olympics

Thursday, 11.28.2013 / 3:00 AM / 2014 Olympics

By Risto Pakarinen - NHL.com Correspondent

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Often overlooked, Finland could surprise at Olympics
Finland will bring three world-class goaltenders to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but a thin crop of defensemen could be a problem.

Finland always enters major tournaments flying under the proverbial radar, but often ends up being a surprise team.

That happened at the 1998 Nagano Olympics when Finland took bronze. It happened again in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey when Finland played in the final against Canada. In 2006, the Finnish "Lions" returned to the final at the Turin Olympics and then captured another Olympic bronze medal in Vancouver in 2010.

This time around, it seems that Finland has gone from flying under the radar to being in stealth mode.

And that's just the way they like it.

Since NHL players began participating in the Olympics in 1998, Finland is the only team that has been on the podium three times. Canada, Russia, the United States and the Czech Republic have all medaled twice; Sweden has once.

Sure, they've never won gold, but that doesn't mean they can't make life difficult for other teams. And in a short tournament like the Olympics, a good system, solid team play and the best goalie in the world can take you far.

Erkka Westerlund, known as the "hockey professor" in Finland, is back behind the bench for Finland. He and the rest of the braintrust, which includes Hockey Hall-of-Famer Jari Kurri as the general manager and Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen as his assistant, spent the early months of 2013 trying to analyze the players and trends in international hockey.

Kurri has preferred to keep his findings "off the record," but there are plenty of players who could make their mark on a Finnish Olympic team that should continue to surprise in Sochi.

PROJECTED FORWARDS
Tuomo Ruutu Mikko Koivu Jussi Jokinen
Leo Komarov Valtteri Filppula Mikael Granlund
Teemu Selänne Saku Koivu Lauri Korpikoski
Juhamatti Aaltonen Petri Kontiola Olli Jokinen
Teemu Hartikainen Jarkko Immonen

Back in 2002, Westerlund was behind the Finnish bench at the IIHF World Junior Championships. He guided the team to the bronze medal, thanks largely to contributions from the first line of Tuomo Ruutu, Mikko Koivu and Jussi Jokinen. While Ruutu's NHL season has been disappointing, he would be a nice fit on the top line in a defined role playing alongside Koivu and Jokinen. This would also give Westerlund a second-line center in Valtteri Filppula, who played on Koivu's wing in the 2012 IIHF World Championships.

Filppula, a conscientious two-way center, has proved this year that he has offensive qualities, too. Mikael Granlund on the wing will give the second line a whole new dimension, especially on the big ice surface. Komarov on the other side will bring physicality that the line would otherwise lack.

With a legendary hockey IQ, Saku Koivu is generally considered the Einstein of hockey in his home country. The former first-line center and Montreal Canadiens captain has evolved into a quintessential third-line center. Now with the Anaheim Ducks, Koivu still ranked fourth on the team in faceoffs taken on Nov. 23 despite missing more than a dozen games with a concussion. When healthy, he is also coach Bruce Boudreau's go-to guy on the penalty kill. With Teemu Selanne by his side, the duo can provide Finland with secondary scoring, something all teams need in a short tournament.

Including their two extra forwards, the Finnish team has seven natural centers and lots of skating power, which has been the foundation of Westerlund's teams.

PROJECTED DEFENSEMEN
Kimmo Timonen Sami Salo
Ossi Väänänen Sami Vatanen
Sami Lepistö Olli Määttä
Lasse Kukkonen Juuso Hietanen

It's not difficult to find Finland's potential achilles' heel. This season, only five Finnish-born defensemen have played in the NHL. Of them, Sami Salo is already 39 years old and Kimmo Timonen will turn 39 three weeks after the Olympic tournament ends. There could be a future star in 19-year-old Olli Määttä, but that's the extent of what Finland will be working with, with the Ducks' Sami Vatanen taking the last spot in the top two pairings.

Timonen and Salo have shown they can still play at a high level, as both are averaging around 20 minutes a game. But the remaining two pairings come from the Kontinental Hockey League and the Finnish league. Ossi Väänänen played nearly 500 NHL games during his time with the Phoenix Coyotes and the Colorado Avalanche in the early 2000s, and Sami Lepistö played close to 200 games with four teams between 2007 and 2012.

Finland will have to rely on solid team defense and a tight system. And of course, the goaltending. Fortunately, Kurri has several world-class options to choose from in net.

PROJECTED GOALIES
Tuukka Rask Antti Niemi Kari Lehtonen

Yes, Finland has several top goalies. But picking the starter may still be the least of Westerlund's problems.

Entering NHL action on Nov. 23, Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask led the League with a .945 save percentage and his 1.62 goals-against average was in the top three. Rask may very well be the world's best goalie entering the Olympic tournament.

Should Rask falter, Finland does have excellent goaltenders to back him up. Kari Lehtonen was also on the 2002 World Junior team with Ruutu, Koivu, Jokinen, and Westerlund, and has earned a spot on the Olympic team with his play with the Dallas Stars.

A Vezina Trophy finalist in 2013, Antti Niemi has slipped a little in the last few weeks but is due to return to his early-season level, which spells trouble for opposing teams.

NEXT IN LINE

Jori Lehtera is a 25-year-old center currently starring for Siber Novosibirsk in the KHL. Aleksander Barkov, the No. 2 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, could play his way onto the team. If the management team decides more size is needed, Jesse Joensuu of the Edmonton Oilers could be an option.

Jere Karalahti is a 38-year-old defenseman for Jokerit Helsinki in the Finnish league with prior international experience. Maybe the biggest wild card for the country is Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, who was probably the favorite to be the starter before this season but is currently on Injured Reserve because of an infection in his hip.

2014 OLYMPICS POLL