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Finn-ishing checks has been the difference for Finland

by James Murphy

Players like Teemu Selanne have helped Finland be a more physical presence against larger teams at the World Championships.
The playoff round continues Friday when the semifinals of the World Championships get under way in Quebec as Canada battles Sweden and Finland takes on Russia. Both games are rematches from the 2007 Worlds in Moscow.

Heading into the tournament, many believed that the United States and Canada would have a distinct advantage because of the smaller North American rinks in Halifax and Quebec, but that hasn't been the case, as the United States was beaten twice by Finland in two very physical games, and Canada is the only North American team left.

Coached by Canadian Doug Sheddon, the Finns are, in the words of Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock, playing a "Canadian game," a north-south, physical brand of hockey. That style appears to be one of the main reasons the Finns find themselves in the semifinals.

"The Finns have brought a team here that just fits with the smaller rink," Hitchcock said after practice Thursday. "They play with an edge to their game and they have used it to their advantage. They're coached by a Canadian and they play Canadian hockey. Look at the way they play in straight lines. Their defense has size and physicality, as well. I would say that the Finns and us fit the game best here."

When informed of Hitchcock's observation and assessment of his team, Sheddon thanked Hitchcock for the compliment and acknowledged that one of his team's main goals coming into the tournament was to step up the physical game in order to utilize their skills in a more-confined environment.

"We knew coming in that the game would be played with a physical element on the smaller ice surface and one of our goals from the get-go was to make sure that we were ready for that," Sheddon said. "It's important in this style here in North America to have a physical presence and be able to set the tempo -- especially when we don't have as many NHLers as other teams here. We, of course, have guys like Teemu Selanne, the Koivu brothers and Olli Jokinen, but we're not necessarily going to light the scoreboard up every game.

"So we approached this with the idea that we would use the body because we have to and the style of play of the smaller rinks requires you do so. I think, to this point. we've done a great job of matching the physical play of every team we've played and I'm confident in saying that 5-on-5, we can match up with anyone because of that. Our special teams scoring could be better but we're getting the job done physically."

Finland's first game with Team USA was highlighted by fights and thunderous hits from both sides, but the Finns appeared to catch the United States off guard with their physical style.

"I think, obviously, European teams are looked at more for finesse and skill and, maybe, yeah, we surprised some people with the game we're playing here," said defenseman Sami Lepisto, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime to beat the U.S. team 3-2 and reach the semifinals. "We've done a great job keeping that in our game, but also mixing in finesse and I think that has helped us a lot." 

Finland and Minnesota Wild forward Mikko Koivu concurred and complimented the coaching staff for doing a solid job of putting a system in place where the North American style didn't present any difficulties for the players.

"I think the coaching staff did a great job of encouraging us to be physical and prepared us well for the North American game," Koivu said. "Obviously we have guys that play here a lot and are used to it, but the whole team has been playing like this and we didn't need to get used to it in the beginning. Now we have to just stay with that and we can hopefully win here."

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