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Finnish star Pesonen hoping to make Penguins

by Shawn P. Roarke
STOCKHOLMJanne Pesonen, the Penguins' new Finnish winger, certainly wants to put on a good show for the home fans Thursday night when the Penguins take on Jokerit in Helsinki.

His reasons are more selfish than altruistic. Pesonen said the fact that he will be the only Penguin of Finnish extraction on the ice for the final exhibition of Pittsburgh's preseason doesn't really enter into his equation of the game.

"Of course, it is very nice to be playing in Finland with a NHL team," Pesonen told after Wednesday's practice. "But, for me, it's another chance to show the coaches that I can be a part of the team. To do that, I have to perform every day."

So forget the weight of a nation, Pesonen has the weight of his career pushing him to greatness Thursday night at Hartwall Arena, home of Jokerit.

Despite his credentials -- including leading the Finnish top division in scoring last season with 78 points -- and a pretty strong training camp, the 26-year-old Pesonen believes he is still on the bubble.

Pesonen looks around the Penguins dressing room and he can do the math. He knows the Pens have to get to a legal NHL roster Friday afternoon and knows there are one too many skaters presently.

He desperately wants to avoid being the last player cut, forced to watch the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008 games this weekend at the Globe Arena before taking a long flight back to North America, just to end up in Wilkes Barre, Pa., the home of the team's American Hockey League affiliate. Nothing against the home of the Baby Pens, but Pesonen left a cushy life in Finland to play NHL hockey, not ride the buses in the minors.

"I had achieved a lot in Finland and wanted to take a step forward," he said. "This is a big step forward for me and I just wanted to accept the challenge. That's why I am here right now."

Pesonen could have easily stayed in his home country. There, he has won four league championships with Karpat, including last season's crown. In 2007, he was the league's playoff MVP. All told, in 285 SM Liiga games, Pesonen has scored 216 points, including 94 goals. Last season, he led the league in scoring, topping his career high by a massive 23 points.

To say he is one of the most-accomplished Finnish players would be accurate. Yet, he craves the bigger stage that the NHL provides and he is fighting to make his dream come true.

"I feel good that I'm getting into the system of the team tactics," Pesonen said. "It's been a short camp, but I tried to work hard every day. For me, some things are different here. The tempo is faster and the ice is smaller, so you have to adjust your thinking."

For example, Pittsburgh's forechecking system is vastly different than anything he has played in Finland. It caused him to think about his responsibilities more than just reacting.

"At first, there were so many new things that I was always thinking, 'OK, what am I going to first and then what comes next,' " Pesonen said.

But things are coming more naturally now, and Pesonen's timid play has all but disappeared. Penguins coach Michel Therrien has used Pesonen in several different roles in the preseason, including on the team's second power-play unit. He has responded with a goal -- as well as another that was later waved off -- and has stood out to many in the Penguins front office.

"I've liked him so far," General Manager Ray Shero told this week. "He's got a nose for the net, is a hard-working player and isn't shy in front of the net -- that's for sure. He's done a good job so far."

Not that Shero expected any less. He had heard rave reviews about Pesonen from his scouting staff. He knew that offering the 26-year-old a one-year deal was virtually a risk-free proposition, so why not?

"We weren't the only team that wanted him," Shero said. "He comes from a good program in Karpat and he's been very successful there. He's a hard-working Finn that can score goals."

It should come as no surprise that the Finnish people love hard-working players who can put the puck in the net. Basically, that has been the blueprint their national team has followed -- often successfully -- for the past four decades. So it shouldn't come as a surprise when the Hartwall Arena fans rise as one to greet a returning hero, even if he did play for Karpat, one of Jokerit's primary rivals.

Pesonen will also have a rather dedicated cheering session composed of his family, his girlfriend and his girlfriend's family. They are all making the 600-kilometer trip for the chance to see Pesonen as an NHL player.

"It's not that long a trip," Pesonen says, "especially if you compare it to going to North America. We'll see what happens. The game is sold-out, so there should be a real good atmosphere. I'm looking forward to it." 

Not as much though as he's looking forward to calling Pittsburgh his new home for the next nine months.
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