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Childhood friends from Finland on opposite sides

Sharks' Donskoi, Predators' Salomaki put friendship on hold during playoff series

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director, Editorial

NASHVILLE -- The San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators are playing for the right to advance to the Western Conference Final. But there is another battle taking place, known only to a few, between two forwards from the same small town in Finland.

Only three players born in Raahe, located in northern Finland, have made the NHL. Two of them, Sharks right wing Joonas Donskoi and Predators right wing Miikka Salomaki, are involved in this Western Conference Second Round series.

Retired defenseman Janne Niinimaa is the only other NHL player from Raahe.

"To have two guys from our small town playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a dream," Donskoi said Wednesday after a team meeting at Bridgestone Arena.

Entering Game 4 on Thursday (9 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN, TVA Sports 2), Donskoi has the edge as the Sharks hold a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.

There has been no discussion between the players about common friends or the long odds they've overcome to get from Raahe to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Salomaki said he and Donskoi, who were inseparable growing up, have not spoken since Nashville upset the Anaheim Ducks to set up this series against San Jose.

Donskoi said the last time he and Salomaki spoke was over lunch on April 2, when the Sharks played in Nashville during the final week of the regular season.

Video: SJS@LAK, Gm5: Donskoi lights the lamp twice in win

In Raahe, a small port town more than 400 miles north of Helsinki, Donskoi and Salomaki played on the same youth hockey team, called Teräskiekko, from the time they were 5. They also played in the same midfield on many of the city's youth soccer teams.

"We're kind of different players, so it is not easy to compare," Salomaki said. "I don't know. He is a skilled player and good with the puck and I'm more like in a defensive role. It's hard to say who's better."

But when it comes to who is better on the soccer pitch, Donskoi said there's no debate.

"Miikka was the better soccer player," Donskoi said, flashing a rare smile. "He had a gift for it. I did not have those gifts, and I just stuck to the hockey side of it."

Despite the rivalry inherent in their friendship, their families remain best of friends and are on speaking terms back home, even if Donskoi and Salomaki have ceased communication during the series.

They also know it is more than just their families in Raahe who are interested in this series.

"Everyone back home is watching," Donskoi said, although the games start early in the morning in Finland because of the time differential; Raahe is eight hours ahead of Nashville and 10 hours ahead of San Jose.

Donskoi, 24, left Raahe first, moving to Finnish hockey club Karpat in 2009, when he was 15. Salomaki, 23, followed two years later.

Video: NSH@ANA, Gm5: Salomaki beats Andersen in front

"There's only one big team in Northern Finland, so that is where people from the north usually go," Salomaki said of Karpat, one of the clubs in Liiga, Finland's top professional division.

The two-year separation was temporary; they played on the youth and senior teams together during the next few years.

In 2010, they won bronze medals as members of the Finnish national team at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship. They also played together on the 2011 and 2012 teams at the World Junior Championship.

But they are apart now, and stand in the way of what each has dreamed about for the better part of the past decade.

Donskoi is a second-line forward counted on to create offense for the Sharks. He has two goals and four points in seven playoff games.

Salomaki is more of a defensive specialist for the Predators. He has one goal in nine games, but had a glorious shorthanded breakaway chance in Game 3 on Tuesday.

"He's a real easy player to like," Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. "He's a real straight-line player, he's physical, he can kill penalties. As a young player, I'm starting to trust him and he's starting to gain confidence from the coaches and his peers on his defensive awareness."

It remains very much up in the air which team will win the series and which Raahe native will play on in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the town Donskoi and Salomaki proudly call home is having a lot of fun watching it play out, even if the hours are inconvenient.

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