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All's well between Finland, Miikka Kiprusoff

by John Dellapina
VANCOUVER – All is well and all is forgiven now. Miikka Kiprusoff is wearing the blue and white of Finland's national team, "Suomi" proudly displayed on his chest. His staunch goaltending is a big reason why the Finns, underestimated yet again, are in the semifinals and in pursuit of their fourth medal in the last five Olympics.

Should the Finns knock off Team USA Friday afternoon and then find a way to beat Canada or Slovakia in the final Sunday, it would be the first hockey gold in the country's Olympic history -- and it is fair to say that Kiprusoff would be crowned a national hero.

His name prompted far less celebratory responses during the last two Olympic cycles.

In 2002, he declined an invitation, saying he was just starting out in the NHL and needed to concentrate on his budding North American career. Four years ago, he again demurred, blaming an injured hip. But the folks back home weren't amused because he never missed a game for the Calgary Flames before or after the Torino Games.

Even the ever-genial Teemu Selanne expressed dissatisfaction with Kiprusoff's decision.

The classy Selanne did not claim to have been misquoted when asked about the matter following the Finns' 35-minute practice at the University of British Columbia on Thursday afternoon. But he insisted there are no hard feelings.

"You know what? I wasn't upset. I was disappointed," Selanne said. "Because I really believe we need everybody. We don't have the same depth that Canada or somebody else has.

"Of course, by saying that, if you look at the goalies we have in the NHL now, it's unbelievable. So we have that depth. But obviously, Kipper is the No. 1 guy and we need him. And so far, he has been phenomenal."

How phenomenal? Going into the semifinals, Kiprusoff leads the tournament with a .947 save percentage. His 1.33 goals against average ranks second, and he is coming off a 2-0 shutout of the Czech Republic in Wednesday night's quarterfinals.

Yes, he gets plenty of help from the tightest team in these Olympics. The Finns give up second shots about as often as the sun shines in their homeland during the winter.

Still, having Kiprusoff behind them allows the Finns to play the kind of game they do: Basically, they challenge each opponent to a flinching contest, checking tightly all over the ice and taking no chances in the belief that they'll get one more save and make one fewer mistake.

That was precisely how Finland outlasted the Czechs in the quarters. Kiprusoff fully expects another goaltending duel in the semis, where he meets up with Ryan Miller, who leads the tournament in goals against average (1.25) and is second to Kiprusoff in save percentage (.944).

Team Finland Gear "I can't worry too much about who is in the other end," Kiprusoff said. "It was (Tomas) Vokoun yesterday, who is one of the top guys in the NHL. Miller probably is the hottest goalie so far in the NHL. So I guess it's pretty good goalies left right now for every team. I can't worry about that too much.

"I play against them every night, every year in the NHL. So I'm used to it."

What he isn't used to is wearing Finland's colors. He hasn't done so since the 2004 World Cup, when he was stellar in getting the Finns to the final, where they lost to Martin Brodeur and Canada.

As for any previous hard feelings about his decision not to represent his country in Salt Lake City and Torino, Kiprusoff said: "To be honest with you, I can't care less. I'm concentrating on this tournament. I'm here now and I'm happy to be here and to do everything I can to help the team."

Finland's general manager, Hockey Hall of Famer Jari Kurri, is similarly confident that his air-tight team is copacetic with its goaltender. Kurri also denied reports that Kiprusoff said he wouldn't play unless he knew he was Finland's No. 1 goaltender.

"There's not a problem at all," Kurri said. "He was 100 percent behind this. There have been some misunderstandings about these cases with our federation. He plays 70 games a year (for the Calgary Flames) in the NHL. We understand that and we respect that if he doesn't want to come to World Championships.

"I can’t worry too much about who is in the other end. It was (Tomas) Vokoun yesterday, who is one of the top guys in the NHL. Miller probably is the hottest goalie so far in the NHL. So I guess it’s pretty good goalies left right now for every team. I can’t worry about that too much."
-- Miikka Kiprusoff

"We want guys to be motivated, who want to come. Those are the kind of players we want. He's so tired at the end of each season. But for these Olympics, he was behind it 100 percent. He said: ‘What is my role going to be? I don't care. I want to be here 100 percent.'"

Of course, even if Kiprusoff is 100 percent, the Finns can't win if they can't score -- and the power play that was the best in the tournament through two games has run dry in the last two (1-for-13). So they pretty much spent their entire time on the ice Thursday working on the power play – and welcoming back point man Joni Pitkanen, who was suspended from the Czech game for a hit from behind against Sweden.

Their hope: That their power play can put one or two by Miller. Their belief: That Kiprusoff will make that suffice as enough to get them into a second straight Olympic gold medal game.

"Like I said earlier, everything starts with the goalie," Selanne said. "And Kipper has done his job. But he still has a lot of work to do too.

"Now, it starts."

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