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Finland turns to Koivu for leadership at Worlds

by Bill Meltzer
Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu was 12 years old when big brother Saku played a pivotal role in bringing Finland a gold medal at the 1995 World Championships. To date, it remains the Finns' lone gold medal in tournament history. As usual, Finland is not one of the favorites to win gold at the 2011 Worlds in Slovakia, but is at least a contender. The younger Koivu holds the distinction of having medaled at every major international tournament in which he has participated.

The 2011 Worlds marks the 28-year-old's fourth World Championship tournament. He won a silver medal in 2007, sandwiched around bronzes the year before and after. In addition, Koivu was a member of Finland's silver-medal winning squads at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and 2006 Olympics as well as its bronze-medal winning 2010 Olympic team. During his junior career, Koivu took home a gold medal from the 2000 Under-18 World Championships, a silver medal from the 2001 World Juniors and bronzes at the 2001 Under-18s and 2002 World Juniors.

Given his druthers, Koivu would be playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs right now – but his Wild team has not reached the postseason since winning the Northwest Division in 2007-08. That year, Koivu did everything in his power (4 goals and 5 points in 6 games) to help the team advance, but the Wild fell in six games to the Colorado Avalanche.

But playing in the World Championships is not a bad consolation prize, and all of Koivu's focus is now on leading Finland to another tournament medal.

"We play all season to get to the [Stanley Cup] playoffs, so it's definitely disappointing not to make it," said Koivu, who missed 12 games this season with a hand injury. "On the other hand, it's always an honor to play for your country. I had to miss the last two World Championships [due to injury], and that was also disappointing.  Hopefully I can turn a negative into a positive this year."

Renowned for his competitiveness, two-way play and leadership ability, Koivu has accepted the captaincy of Team Finland at this year's World Championship tourney in Slovakia.  The Finns will need him to be a productive force both on the ice and in the locker room.

"I believe in our team," he said. "It's a pretty long tournament, so you have to improve as you go along.  We have to win by outworking other teams, and that doesn't change."

Finland rarely boasts the offensive depth to be able to outgun teams like Canada or Russia in international competition. As their captain suggests, it's a combination of cohesive team play, grit, defense and goaltending that usually pulls the Finns through.

Koivu, who produced 62 points this season for Minnesota, enters the tourney as his team's most proven offensive threat. He is centering the top line, flanked by Carolina Hurricanes left wing Tuomo Ruutu and Metallurg Magnitogorsk right wing Juhamatti Aaltonen. A former St. Louis Blues draftee, Aaltonen scored 28 goals last season in the SM-Liiga for the Lahti Pelicans and a combined 26 regular-season and playoff goals in the KHL this season. Along with top Minnesota prospect Mikael Granlund, these four players represent the fulcrum of Team Finland's attack.

It is unknown if Teemu Selanne will join the team later in the tournament. The Anaheim Ducks star was undecided about the Worlds after his team was eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His addition would be a major boon to the Finns' medal hopes.

Unlike past years, goaltending is not considered a particular strength of the Finns heading into the 2011 Worlds. Veteran Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom and Calgary Flames standout Miikka Kiprusoff are not at the tournament, and Nashville's Pekka Rinne, San Jose's Antti Niemi, Antero Niittymaki and Boston's Tuukka Rask are involved in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As a result, the Finns have turned the goaltending chores over to veteran Petri Vehanen of the KHL's Ak Bars Kazan and Teemu Lassila of the SM-Liiga's HPK Hameenlinna.

The goaltending alignment has been the source of much anxiety in Finland, but Koivu maintains that the team has full confidence in the ability of the non-NHL goalies to get the job done.

"Both of them are good goalies," he said. "No matter who is in net for our team, we have to help out in front. We prepare the same way."

During the preliminary round of the tournament, Finland was placed in Group D. The rest of the pool consists of the Czech Republic, Denmark and Latvia. The winner of the pool with play the third place team of Pool A (Russia, Slovakia, Germany and Slovenia) on Friday in the first game of the medal round qualification phase of the tournament.

In the first game of the preliminaries, Finland took on Denmark. A year ago, the Danes pulled off a stunning upset. Koivu and company were determined not to let it happen again this time around. Despite outshoot the Danes by an 18-3 margin through the first 23 minutes of the game, the game was scoreless early in the second in period thanks to Danish goaltender Frederik Andersen.

Finally, a Jarkko Immonen power-play goal got Finland on the board. Late in the second period, Koivu set up Aaltonen on the man advantage to extend the lead to 2-0. In the third period, Ruutu scored off the rush, set up by his linemates. In addition, defenseman Janne Niskala and Antti Pilhstrom tallied goals for the Finns to complete a 5-1 victory. Vehanen was only needed to make 8 saves, as Finland outshot Denmark 44-9.

With the opening game victory under their belts, Team Finland will now prepare to take on Latvia on Monday. The Finns' toughest test of the preliminary round will come on Wednesday, when they play the Czech Republic at Orange Arena in Bratislava.

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