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World Cup Preview - Team Finland

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
A veteran with Leafs TV, you can watch Paul Johnson on various shows on the network including his work on Leafs Today, Rivals and much more.
July 22, 2004

(TORONTO) -- For the better part of 20 years, Finland has been supplying the NHL with some of it's most talented players including one of the best of all time; Jari Kurri. Kurri played over 1,200 games in the NHL winning five Stanley Cups with the Oilers along the way. He was the first Finnish born player to score 50 goals and record 100 points in a season, and the only Finnish player enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

For the 1996 World Cup, Kurri was a 36-year old veteran on a young, but talented squad. With talent up front like Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne, Esa Tikkanen, and Jere Lehtinen, the Finns had plenty of offence and won their first 2 games by a combined score of 15-6 over the Czechs and Germans.

After losing their final round robin game 5-2 to the Swedes, their 2-1 record set up a Quarterfinal match against the Russians. Despite how offensive they had been in their previous three games, the Finns were shutout 5-0, and their tournament was over.

This year's team will be equally as good up front, but the Finnish strength is clearly in net, where the combination of Miikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, and Kari Lehtonen is not only rife with interesting storylines, but could be the second best trio of net-minders in the entire tournament behind the Canadians.

Kiprusoff will try to bring to same heroics to the World Cup of Hockey that he displayed in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
(Getty Images/NHLI)
The best storyline might be that of Kiprusoff and Toskala. Thanks to Toskala emerging as the top back-up to Evgeni Nabokov, the Sharks decided that Kiprusoff was expendable. As the No. 2 guy in the San Jose net, Toskala finished the year 12-8-4, with a 2.06 goals against average. Not bad, but when Kiprusoff found himself in Calgary after the November 16 trade, he grabbed the brass ring and didn't look back.

"Kipper", to his teammates, went 24-10-4 with a 1.69 goals against average in the regular season- good enough to be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. Not to mention the fact that he carried the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final, and sent Toskala and the rest of the Sharks to the golf course in the Western Final along the way. And perhaps the most ironic part is that Kiprusoff will likely be the No. 1 goalie for Finland at the World Cup, with Toskala as his backup.

And, if that wasn't enough irony, how about No. 3 on the depth chart- Kari Lehtonen. All things being equal, he might be the most talented member of the threesome, and yet he probably won't even see the ice in game action. At 6-foot-3, and 200 pounds, Atlanta's first choice in the 2002 draft has a shot at being the No. 1 goalie for the Thrashers this season and for many years to come.

In his first taste of NHL hockey this past season, he proved that all the hype was worth it, going 4-0 with a shutout, a 1.25 goals against average, and Defensive Player of the Week honours for the week ending March 28.

Offensively, super talents like Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Sami Kapanen will carry most of the load, but don't be surprised if some of the lesser lights on this team turn out to be key contributors. After being drafted third overall by the Kings in the 1997 Entry Draft, Olli Jokinen spent the first five years of his NHL career NOT living up to his billing. But, over his last two seasons in Florida the 6-foot-3, 215 pound forward has scored 62 of his 97 career goals and is finally showing signs of being an impact player in the league.

Joining Jokinen up front is one of the league's brightest young stars in Tuomo Ruutu. Selected ninth overall in 2001 by the Blackhawks, Ruutu finished his rookie year with 23 goals and 44 points, playing in all 82 games. Among his fellow rookies, he finished third in goals, fifth in assists and third in points despite averaging only 16 minutes of ice time per game.

On the back end, Kimmo Timonen, Joni Pitkanen, Teppo Numminen and Aki Berg will anchor the defence corps, but their most important job will be to make sure that whomever is playing net can see the puck. With the tournaments second best collection of puck-stoppers, the Finns have a shot at one of the top three spots. But Selanne is not the Finnish Flash of old, and Jari Kurri isn't 26, and isn't on the roster. Therefore, even though the Finns might make it through the round robin, they won't surprise any of the tournaments heavyweights when the chips are down.

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