-- For the better part of two decades, Finland has counted on forwards like Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu to bail the team out of tough spots in international hockey.
One international hockey's biggest stage, the Olympics, Finland showed Wednesday afternoon that the long-awaited changing of the guard may now be a reality.
Yes, Saku Koivu and Selanne played a part in Wednesday's 5-1 win against Belarus in Group C action at Canada Hockey Place. Heck, Selanne even tied a pretty impressive record along the way by earning the secondary assist on Olli Jokinen's game-opening goal.
But with Wednesday's game hanging in the balance -- Finland was clinging to a 2-1 lead early in the second period against a determined Belarus side -- it was the team's Generation Next that stepped to the forefront.
Calgary forward Niklas Hagman, 31, scored a breathtaking goal with a little more than three minutes left in an otherwise unsettling period for Finland to give his team a 3-1 lead. It was Hagman's second goal of the game -- and the primary assist went Mikko Koivu, the 26-year-old brother of Saku. Mikko Koivu finished with three assists.
"It's a 2-1 game halfway through and anything can happen," Finland goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, a teammate of Hagman's in Calgary, told NHL.com. "We had so many chances, and you pretty much know you are going to score at some point if you keep doing that."
But the Finns weren't scoring.
Belarusian goalie Vitali Koval was turning aside everything but the first-period power-play goals by Olli Jokinen and Hagman.
"Their goalie really kept them in the game," Kiprusoff said.
At the time of the Belarusian goal, the Finns were outshooting their opponents 17-3. After two periods it was a 28-4 discrepancy in shots. At one point, Selanne himself was outshooting the entire Belarusian team 9-5.
Suddenly, an expected easy victory looked like a recipe for Olympic disaster as a hot goalie started to worm his way into the psyche of the Finnish forwards.
Until, that is, Hagman had enough and turned the game in Finland's favor for good with a brilliant individual effort.
He burrowed into the Belarusian zone to claim a hard dump-in by Mikko Koivu along the left half boards, then cut between a pair of defensemen to get into the slot before lifting a backhander from his knees that beat Koval to the far post.
"If (Belarus) would have tied the game, it would have been a big, big turning point," Saku Koivu, the Finnish captain, told NHL.com. "Hagman's goal was obviously a big one for us because it took some pressure off and put the momentum on our side."
Hagman tried to downplay his accomplishment.
"There was still so much time left," he told NHL.com. "Obviously, you want to be in a better lead, but we knew that we played OK. We knew eventually we were going score, so I wouldn't say we were too worried. We knew we had to play better. But we knew we could play better."
Hagman reminded them with a play full of both industry and artistry -- the dual hallmarks of the Finnish game.
After that goal, the Belarusians' spirits flagged.
Detroit's Valtteri Filppula tipped home a Mikko Koivu slapper off an egregious turnover by the Belarus defense to make it 4-1. Finally, with a little more than seven minutes left, Jarkko Ruutu finished off the scoring with his first goal in 12 Olympic hockey games.
"We were really fighting very hard before the third Finnish goal," Belarusian coach Mikhail Zakharov said. "We tried our best, but it was not enough."
But, even on a night that proved to be a showcase for the new guard, the team's old men -- Selanne and Saku Koivu -- each playing in their last Olympics -- found a way to make an imprint.
With the secondary assist on Jokinen's game-opening goal, Selanne tied the Olympic record for most points in a career. The Finnish Flash now has 36 points in five Olympics.
According to the IIHF record book, he is tied with Czechoslovakia's Vlastimil Bubnik, Russia's Valeri Kharlamov and Canada's Harry Watson for the most points in the modern era, which begins with the 1956 Games.
"He's been a big part of Finnish success in the Olympics," Hagman told NHL.com. "He's always been a big key part. Even now when he is a little older -- his legs, the way he sees the ice, the way he can still shoot -- it is all tremendous. It's a great honor for him."
"Hopefully, he is going to get a few more points in this tournament. But, obviously it couldn't happen to a better guy."
Saku Koivu earned the primary assist on Selanne's record-tying achievement -- not only winning the faceoff to Selanne, but then threading a perfect cross-slot pass to Jokinen for the easy one-timer -- and is now just two assists away from tying the Olympic mark for career assists. Kharlamov holds the record with 20.
Finland continues its Group C campaign on Friday against Germany, which plays Sweden later this afternoon. Belarus, meanwhile, will play against Sweden later on Friday.
2 1 2 - 5
0 1 0 - 1
1. FIN, Jokinen (S. Koivu, Selanne) 3:24 (PPG)
2. FIN, Hagman (M. Koivu, Pitkanen) 17:50 (PPG)
- Makritski BLR (holding) 2:41, Ryadinski BLR (hooking) 15:55.
3. BLR, Kostitsyn (Demagin) 0:21
4. FIN, Hagman (M. Koivu) 16:52
- Kukkonen FIN (holding) 8:34, Bench BLR (too many men served by Demagin) 12:34, Salo FIN (hooking) 14:01.
5. FIN, Filppula (M. Koivu) 0:23
6. FIN, J. Ruutu (Kukkonen, Kapanen) 12:59
- Karev BLR (tripping) 1:13, Stasenko BLR (slashing) 6:06, Makritski BLR (tripping) 10:11.
SHOTS ON GOAL
17 11 17 - 45
2 2 8 - 12
(goals-shots against) - FIN: Kiprusoff (W, 1-12); BLR: Koval (L, 5-45).
(goals-chances) - FIN: 2-6; BLR: 0-2.