In 2006, the Finnish Men's Olympic hockey team came within one goal of forcing OT against its most bitter rival, and within two goals of a celebration that likely would have lasted at least into the preliminary round of the 2010 Olympic tournament.
It began simply enough in pool play, with wins against a gritty Swiss squad, the host Italian team, and a gutsy 4-2 victory against the Czech Republic. But by the end of their 2-0 victory against the powerful Canadian team, Team Finland's fans began to believe that their boys in white and blue had latched onto something special.
Team leader Teemu Selanne
knows what that something special is. It's called chemistry … karma … gelling as a team. Something the Finns -- who all understand their team identity -- do as well as any in the 12-team Olympic field.
"It's a short event. I think the men's hockey tournament will be played in 12 days -- so the team that can find its game right away will be strong," Selanne told NHL.com correspondent Risto Pakarinen this summer. "The differences in the rosters aren't huge. We know that. We all play in the NHL against everybody every day, so I don't think that's an issue.
"If we play our own game, we can beat anybody. Having said that, it's just as obvious that we're not the favorites to win, the pressure is on other teams."
Coming together as a team is the single most important aspect for any Olympic gold hopeful. Team Finland rode that sense of "team-first" hockey to the gold-medal game in 2006, and will be looking to do the same in 2010.
With that philosophy in mind, here is my 2010 Team Finland Olympic roster.
Niklas Backstrom, Minnesota Wild
-- Despite little international experience, Backstrom enters 2009-10 likely with the No. 1 job to lose, having played to a .920-or-better save percentage and a 2.33-or-better GAA in each of his first three NHL seasons.
Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary Flames
-- Once the most-recognizable face of the Finnish goaltender invasion, Kiprusoff has seen his play slip in each of the four seasons since he led the Flames to Game 7 of the Cup Final in 2004. It's hard to argue with his cool in the crease, however, and he should have a firm grip on the No. 2 -- perhaps even pushing for No. 1 status.
Antero Niittymaki, Tampa Bay Lightning
-- Sorry Pekka Rinne
, but even if Niittymaki hadn't taken home "Best Goaltender" honors in 2006, his strong start to 2009-10 would have at least given him the inside track for the No. 3 goaltender come February.
Kimmo Timonen, Philadelphia Flyers
-- Timonen is the de facto No.1 defender for the Finns, the most complete player they have on their defense and should, yet again, be a huge part of the Finnish blue line.
Joni Pitkanen, Carolina Hurricanes
-- A tough start to the season notwithstanding, Pitkanen is a dangerous offensive playmaker and able-bodied defender -- when he feels like it. If healthy and motivated, he is as good as most No. 2 defenders in this tournament, and better than some with "bigger" names.
Pettri Nummelin, HC Lugano (Swiss league)
-- Nummelin's NHL career is on hold for now;, but during his short three-year stint in North America, he proved two things. First, he is a capable power-play quarterback, with 29 of his 45 career points coming on the man advantage. Second, his career 8-for-10 shootout record means he knows how to deke. Those two tidbits should be more than enough to put him into an Olympic jersey.
Ossi Vaananen, Dynamo Minsk (KHL)
-- With 479 career NHL games under his belt, Vaananen has proven he can skate with the world's best; and on the thin Finnish defensive corps, that counts for a lot.
Sami Salo, Vancouver Canucks
-- The Finnish team's second-most accomplished NHL defender, Salo brings leadership and calm under pressure -- not to mention his booming slap shot. Those attributes make him a very valuable piece of the Finnish puzzle.
Ville Koistinen, Florida Panthers
-- With 41 points in 59 games for the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals in 2006-07, great things seemed in store for Koistinen. Injuries and spotty play have tarnished some of that shine, but he remains offensively gifted and bursting with talent. The bright lights of the Olympics might be the stage to bring out his best.
Sami Kapanen, KalPa Kuopio (SM Liiga)
-- A grizzled veteran of Finnish hockey, the NHL, and international competition from the World Junior to the Olympics, Kapanen's most valuable asset is his versatility, namely the ability to seamlessly transition between offense and defense. In a short tournament where injuries can decimate a game plan, having a swingman like Kapanen is worth its weight in, well, gold.
Teemu Selanne, Anaheim Ducks
-- A national hero with cult-level status in Finland, there is no way Selanne doesn't a) make this team; b) have a shot at the captaincy; and c) make his presence known with some timely goals in key situations. He's the most dangerous offensive piece of the Finnish puzzle, even after all these years, bar none.
Olli Jokinen, Calgary Flames
-- Playing in Calgary for Brent Sutter
means Jokinen will be physically and mentally prepared for the grind of the Olympics -- which might look like a cakewalk compared to one of Sutter's practices.
Mikko Koivu, Minnesota Wild
-- Despite not having the name recognition of others, Koivu enters 2009-10 as the Finn with the brightest rising star. The Olympics could mark the last opportunity for hockey poolies to take him in the later rounds in Yahoo.com fantasy leagues.
Saku Koivu, Anaheim Ducks
-- Brother Mikko may be the biggest piece of the next wave of Finnish superstars, but the sun hasn't set on Saku just yet, and playing the first 50-or-so games with countryman Selanne should make the two a no-brainer line combination, at least to start.
Tuomo Ruutu, Carolina Hurricanes
-- The youngest Ruutu has all of the rough and tumble edges of brother Jarkko's game, but he also has a vast skill set that still has yet to reach its potential. Few will forget his individual-effort goal against the Canadians in the 2004 World Cup. His up-tempo, aggressive style will be a boon for Team Finland in 2010.
Valtteri Filppula, Detroit Red Wings
-- A wrist injury derailed what appeared to be a breakout year for Filppula, but his size, strength, control and hockey sense, combined with the tutelage the veteran leadership in Detroit, make him a potent addition to the 2010 team.
Niklas Hagman, Toronto Maple Leafs
-- After averaging 22 goals in his past three NHL seasons, few would say that Hagman hasn't stepped up his game to the Olympic level, even if he doesn't have the star-power name.
Jarkko Ruutu, Ottawa Senators
-- Fourth-line minutes suit this Ruutu just fine, as he makes the most of every second on every shift. A career PIM-a-game player, his role will be to clear space for his teammates, and maybe lure a few talented opponents into the sin bin alongside him, on occasion.
Jussi Jokinen, Carolina Hurricanes
-- Jokinen's role in the Hurricanes' run to the Eastern Conference Final has been well-documented (3 game-winning goals of 7 total in 18 playoff games), and that sort of production in big-time games will bode well for his 2010 chances.
Sean Bergenheim, New York Islanders
-- Still a young man by NHL standards (he'll turn 26 shortly before the tournament begins), he is finally beginning to play with the edge and confidence the Islanders predicted out of him when they selected him No. 22 in 2002.
Jarkko Immonen, Ak Bars Kazan (KHL)
-- Gaudy AHL numbers -- just about a point per game -- never really translated to NHL success for Immonen. But his career pedigree makes the 6-foot, 209-pound veteran a good bet for third- or fourth-line duty in 2010.
Niko Kapanen, Ak Bars Kazan (KHL)
-- With seven goals and 10 points in only seven games at the 2009 World Championship this past summer, Kapanen showed the Finnish hockey world he is still a dangerous offensive player, and kept his name in the mix for 2010.
Antti Miettinen, Minnesota Wild
-- Last year's breakout campaign continued into the summer for Miettinen, who was selected to Finland's 2009 World Championship team, where he scored 3 goals and 8 points in seven games. A tireless checker with the ability to put the puck in the net, he should find a home on one of the Finns' checking lines, and as a key component in their penalty killing.
Oskar Osala, Hershey (AHL)
-- Osala could one day be a household name in the NHL, but right now the 6-4, 217-pound Capitals prospect is content to refine his game in the AHL. The youngest member of my hypothetical Team Finland likely wouldn't see much ice, but simply being on the team would do wonders for his career development as a Finnish national team member, something that could eke him into a roster spot in Vancouver
There you have it. From the team that took home the 2006 silver medal, only 14 of those 24 remain on my 2010 incarnation of Team Finland.
That is one reason the 2010 tournament could play out quite differently for the Finns.
The man between the pipes will be different, as Niittymaki should start only in the event that each of his All-Star countrymen falters when given the starts, and Selanne is now four years older than the then 35-year-old veteran who magically found his legs for one of the world's biggest hockey stages.
He should play only a minor, but important, role, as veterans like Mario Lemieux
and Steve Yzerman
did in Team Canada's run to the 2002 gold medal.
It is time, however, for younger players to take the reins from players like Selanne and Saku Koivu
, who are likely playing their last Winter Olympics. Players like Miikko Koivu, Tuomo Ruutu
, Filppula, Jussi Jokinen
and Bergenheim all need to start flexing their muscles in the international game.
That does not mean that the Finns will be expecting a different outcome.
Possessed of a stubborn, almost super-human, ability to defy the odds, the Finns have surprised the world more often than not lately. Since Calgary 1988, the Finns have medaled in four of six tournaments, with two bronze and two silvers to their credit.
They will be looking to upset the "favorites" yet again, comfortably situated in their position as the oft-overlooked team of international competitions.
Brad Holland is the video guru at NHL.com and it's a safe bet he has seen virtually every big goal scored by a Finnish NHLer this season.