Rask, defense helping Finland overcome injuries

Monday, 02.17.2014 / 9:20 AM / 2014 Olympics

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Rask, defense helping Finland overcome injuries
Despite finding itself decimated down the middle with injuries to its top centers, Finland is the fourth seed at the 2014 Sochi Olympics thanks in large part to goalie Tuukka Rask and its defense.

SOCHI -- In the weeks leading up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Finland's depth chart at center included Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula, Saku Koivu and Aleksander Barkov.

That group would be at worst the fifth-best collection of talent at the position in this tournament, and it might not be far off what Russia and the United States have in a tier behind Canada and Sweden.

The Swedes are now missing a couple of elite centers in Henrik Sedin and Henrik Zetterberg, but no team has dealt with more roster attrition than Finland. None of those four names mentioned above will be available Wednesday when the fourth-seeded Finns face either Russia or Norway in the quarterfinals.

Despite finding itself decimated down the middle with injuries to its top centers, Finland is the fourth seed at the 2014 Sochi Olympics thanks in large part to goalie Tuukka Rask and its defense. (Photo: Getty Images)

Finland's current depth chart at center is Jarkko Immonen, Olli Jokinen, Petri Kontiola and Jori Lehtera. Still, that group helped hold Canada, the team with four of the top seven or eight centers in the world, to one goal in regulation before losing in overtime Sunday.

"Obviously we lost a couple of the biggest stars in Finland. We always play as a team, and it's no secret to anybody," Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. "We lost a couple guys but now we have to be even tighter. We have to play tight defense and wait for other teams to make mistakes."

Mikko Koivu was injured in early January, and his brother declined an invitation before the roster deadline Jan. 7. Filppula sustained a broken ankle just before the NHL took a break for the Olympics.

That left Barkov, an 18-year-old rookie for the Florida Panthers, as Finland's No. 1 center when the tournament began, but then he went down with an injury during the team's second game against Norway.

Before the tournament, the Finns were considered strong medal contenders and a dark horse to win gold. The injuries would appear to have severely damaged their chances, but the performance against Canada might just prove Finland is still a threat and fill the team with belief.

"If we can play team defense and we can protect the house, we can still win games," Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. "[Sunday] was a good example of that, but it was too bad we couldn't win."

Rask is a big reason why Finland is still dangerous. Even if the Finns end up under siege against an opponent with superior talent, Rask could steal a game.

That wasn't the case against the Canadians, though. Finland's defensive structure supported Rask, and the combination of the two could still prove to be successful.

"We were trying to keep them outside because the angles are not so good as in the NHL because of the big ice surface," Finland captain Teemu Selanne said. "I think most of the game we did a good job. Our goal is to improve every game and so far we've done a good job."

It might be too simple of a characterization, but Selanne's reaction to a question about whether or not this was a perfect type of game for Finland might also be telling.

"Nooooo. No no no no," Selanne said. "Not at all. We can do better, but there were a lot of good things. Obviously we have a lot of young guys that have never played against these big stars before. I think this was big confidence boost to realize that we can compete against these guys."

While Finland was expected to be strong at center before the injuries, and possesses the deepest collection of goaltending talent, the defense corps was expected to be a potential weakness. There are only four NHL defensemen on this roster, and two of them are NHL rookies whose combined age is less than Selanne's.

Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Selanne's teammate with the Ducks, Sami Vatanen, are logging top-four minutes alongside NHL veterans Timonen and Sami Salo of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"We know we have some good players," Timonen said. "These young guys, they're flying. They skate hard and they play hard. It is good for us and good for Team Finland moving forward for not just this tournament. We're feeling pretty good but we can be better."

Finland's revamped lineup will likely face another stern test in the quarterfinals. Canada's overtime goal was the difference between being the top seed and facing the winner of Austria and Slovenia, as opposed to earning the No. 4 seed and squaring off with either Russia or Norway.

Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and John Tavares were a huge challenge for Finland's makeshift center corps, but seeing Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk isn't much of a dropoff.

"In this tournament, you will have to win against big countries," Finland coach Erkka Westerlund said. "Russia would be a big challenge for us. They play very good hockey and they have good set of players."