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'Finland's way' proves good enough once again

by Arpon Basu

SOCHI -- One of these days, people will learn to stop underestimating Finland at the Olympics.

The team that has won more Olympic men's hockey medals than any other nation since NHL players were first involved in 1998 guaranteed itself a chance to play for another one at the 2014 Sochi Olympics after beating the host Russians 3-1 in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.

"Every time we go into tournaments like this we're disrespected," Finland center Olli Jokinen said. "But the good thing for our country no matter what the names are on the back, Finland's going to play the same way no matter who we have here. We could have 20 different guys here and the results would be the same.

"Finland's going to play Finland's way."

Finland's way may have toppled the Russian machine Wednesday, but the doubts surrounding Finland's chances here began the day the team was announced Jan. 7.

Saku Koivu, who has captained the national team in every international competition he has played in since 1994, revealed that day he would not be in Sochi in order to save his energy for the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Anaheim Ducks.

Then, in the week prior to the Olympics, Finland lost the player who was going to replace Koivu as team captain, his brother Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild. Following that, Valtteri Filppula of the Tampa Bay Lightning also withdrew with an injury.

That thrust Florida Panthers rookie Aleksander Barkov into the limelight, 18 years old and centering the top line of his men's national team at the Olympics.

But that situation lasted all of two games, with Barkov also pulling out of the tournament with an injury.

So when Finland entered its game against its massive neighbor to the east Wednesday, a powerhouse Russian team featuring some of the greatest offensive talent on earth, few gave the little nation that could much of a chance.

In fact, even Finland's greatest hockey treasure was thinking the same thing.

"Today I thought there was a chance that I would be playing my last national team game," said Teemu Selanne, who had a goal and an assist in the game. "It was a really weird feeling, actually. But it's not over yet."

A big reason why it isn't over is that Finland's non-NHL players were better than Russia's. So much was made about Russia's insistence on taking players from the Kontinental Hockey League. But Finland actually had more KHL players on its roster, and they meshed perfectly with the NHL stars.

One of the non-NHL players, Juhamatti Aaltonen of Karpat in the Finnish SM-liiga, stepped into the top-line center role in the absence of the missing stars and helped halt the Russian attack before it ever got a chance to gain traction.

Aaltonen's beautiful goal tied the game 1-1 just 87 seconds after Ilya Kovalchuk gave Russia the lead. On his equalizer, the Finn undressed Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Nikita Nikitin with an inside-out move before fooling Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche with a quick shot from a sharp angle.

The goal allowed Finland to stick to its trapping, counter-attacking style that frustrated Russia into turnovers time and time again. And even the goal itself came on a play Finland discussed beforehand with coach Erkka Westerlund, who probably deserves a lot more credit than he is receiving.

"We talk about before the game that our wing guy was going to go to the net and create some space for a little swing play to the boards and then you can challenge to the net," Aaltonen said. "It worked pretty perfectly there."

After Selanne put Finland ahead 2-1 before the end of the first, Finland began executing its plan. Russia got very few looks in the middle of the ice and while they sometimes buzzed around the outside of the zone and peppered Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask with shots, not many of them were dangerous.

"For us, when you see them lining it up and one guy tries to beat four guys, or they're making stretch passes, that's exactly what we want," Jokinen said. "They didn't really have an answer how to break our trap, and they were just trying to make that home-run pass."

Everything Finland has done at this tournament this year and in previous ones would lead any logical, sane person to believe it has a chance against its biggest hockey rival, Sweden, in the semifinal Friday. The Finns tied the United States for the most goals scored in the preliminary round, took Canada to overtime before losing 2-1 and beat Russia in a knockout game on Russian soil.

Yet once again, Finland will be an underdog against Sweden in the eyes of most.

Maybe that's how the Finns like it.

"We all know how good they are. I've got a lot of respect for those guys," Selanne said. "I don't think we are the favorites, honestly. We have four of our best centers out in this tournament, and usually we don't have that kind of depth that some other teams have.

"But we believe and we work. Let's see what happens."

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