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Finns set to make NHL debuts on Thursday

by Torie Peterson / Calgary Flames

It's exciting. I'm happy that we get to make our debut at the same time. It's a fun coincidence and it's going to be fun.Joni Ortio on his and Markus Granlund's NHL debuts

CALGARY, AB -- It's been quite the season for the Finnish duo Markus Granlund and Joni Ortio.

The pair, who have played together in Finland in years past and are close friends, have spent the majority of the season with the Abbotsford Heat and have helped lead the Flames AHL affiliate to the top spot in the Western Conference.

Both are having fantastic freshman year's in the AHL and both are among the top rookies (by position) in the league. They both are in the midst of their second NHL call-up.

And both will make their NHL debuts on Thursday night when the Los Angeles Kings pay a visit to the Scotiabank Saddledome.

"It's exciting. I'm happy that we get to make our debut at the same time," Ortio grinned. "It's a fun coincidence and it's going to be fun."

Head coach Bob Hartley informed the pair that they would be in the lineup prior to the hour-long skate on Wednesday, giving them time to digest the information - something which Ortio greatly appreciated.

"It wouldn't be the same if I found out tomorrow after the pre-game skate. Now, at least I can ease my way into it and gather my thoughts, stuff like that. It's good."

In regards to the timing of Ortio's first NHL start, Hartley wanted to give Reto Berra some more time to adjust after his lengthy journey from the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The Swiss netminder has gotten into four practices since returning and has had to cope with jet lag throughout some of those skates.

"Reto had a good run before the Olympics and now with the time change from Russia and everything ... I think it's a win-win, to give two extra days to Reto to fall back on his feet over here in North America.

"At the same time, Joni came from Finland to get a taste of the NHL and I think that he deserves it."

Ortio is the top rookie goaltender in the AHL this season, going 20-6-0 with a 2.22 GAA and .926 save percentage. He was able to quickly transition to the speed and pace of the North American game and has gained confidence as the year has rolled along.

His stellar play earned him a call-up prior to the Olympic break but Berra played in the three games leading up the hiatus. That turned out to be a blessing as Ortio is now able make his debut in front of the C of Red.

"It would have been nice on the road too but playing here at the Saddledome, it's going to be special," he explained. "I'm happy that I'm getting my debut here, in front of all of the fans. The fans are great here so I'm really excited about that."

Granlund slots in with Brian McGrattan in the infirmary, still recovering from a fall on the ice last week. Hartley has watched the pivot closely in Abbotsford and has seen enough from the 20-year-old in practice to know what he can bring to the lineup.

"Hockey sense," the bench boss said. "The vision. As soon as he gets the puck, it seems as his chin is going up. He's looking for his wingers. He seems to be very creative. He skates well.

"He had a great camp. He had some great games. We didn't get many centres that got injured during the season plus we had plenty of bodies over here. It's a number of factors that kind prevented Grans from getting called up. Now he's here and we'll play him."

Granlund is set to start the game centering Paul Byron and Kevin Westgarth, a line that has been practicing together for two days. Hartley felt each player brings unique qualities that will provide the balance to the line.

"It's too bad that Grans doesn't start with an 'M' because we'd have the BMW line," Hartley chuckled. "Their speed, their size, their hockey sense ... it should be good. Pauly is eager to get back in the lineup also so it should be fun."

The Oulu, FIN native is thrilled about the opportunity to jump into the lineup and wants to soak everything in.

"I'm just going to try to enjoy it," he smiled. "You can play only one first NHL game so I'm just going to try to enjoy the game."

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