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Outdoor game, shutouts highlight Oddset tourney

by Bill Meltzer /
The annual Euro Hockey Tour series of four-team international tournaments provides an opportunity for the national team coaches and general managers of Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic to evaluate non-NHL talent for roster spots at the IIHF World Championship. The teams also compete for prize money. Russia has won three of the last four seasons.

Won by Team Sweden, the recently completed Oddset Hockey Games in Stockholm and Helsinki was the third of four segments of this season's Tour. The Karjala Cup Tournament was held in November in Helsinki and Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, with Team Russia finishing first. In December, the Swedes prevailed at the Channel One Cup, held in Moscow with one game in Chomutov, Czech Republic. The final competition, the Czech Hockey Games, will be held in late April. Five games will take place in Brno, Czech Republic, and one match will be held in Russia.

With Sweden's victory at the Oddset tournament, Tre Kronor moved into first place among the four nations. Team Sweden's cumulative 16 points (5-3-1 record) places it one point ahead of Russia. The Czechs (3-4-2, 13 points) are in third place with defending IIHF World Championship gold medalist Finland (3-5-1, 10 points) in last place.

Janne Pesonen paced the Finnish attack with a pair of goals against the Czechs. (Photo: Getty Images)
Without question, the most unique venue for any of this year's tour games was the outdoor game between Finland and Russia that opened the Oddset Hockey Games. A crowd of 25,036 braved frigid temperatures and snow to witness the match at Helsinki Olympic Stadium. Although the attendance fell short of the 36,644 turnout last year to see local SM-liiga archrivals HIFK and Jokerit oppose each other in the first Finnish "Winter Classic" (Talviklassikko in Finnish), this time around the crowd was nearly unanimous in which side it wanted to win.

Despite the efforts of the home crowd to exhort Team Finland, the Russians grabbed a lead on a Stanislav Chistov goal in the final minute of the first period and never let it go. Both teams struggled to get their skating legs going in the biting cold of a Helsinki winter, with many of the players wearing hooded sweatshirts under their jerseys and helmets. 

Early in the third period, Russia converted a power-play opportunity as Washington Capitals top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov extended the lead to 2-0. The 19-year-old, who also assisted on the Chistov tally, turned former NHL defenseman Ossi Vaananen and goaltender Ari Ahonen inside out. The Finns struggled to generate momentum for a comeback. Russian goalie Mikhail Biryukov finished with a 21-save shutout in a game that saw the two sides combine for just 35 shots.

"We were hoping for a better performance than this today, regardless of the conditions," Finnish head coach Jukka Jalonen said to MTV3 after the game. "There weren't a lot of chances to score."

Unfortunately, the conclusion of the Finland-Russia game was overshadowed by concern for linesman Jari Korteniemi. On a routine left-circle faceoff late in the third period, Korteniemi's skate got caught as he got tangled with players battling for the puck. Attempting to turn out of the players' way, the linesman's ankle and lower leg contorted grotesquely and the bones snapped as he collapsed to the ice. Emergency assistance was necessary, and the linesman was carted off the ice on a stretcher to a hospital.


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Biryukov's shutout of the Finns turned out to be the start of the tournament-long trend. Every team but the tourney-winning Swedes recorded a shutout during their three round-robin games, but also got victimized by a shutout. Meanwhile, Tre Kronor actually ended up allowing the fewest goals (4) of any team and scoring the same number (8) as both Russia and Finland. The Czech Republic (6) scored the fewest goals.

Arguably, the best individual goaltending performance of the tourney was turned in by Czech goalie Tomas Popperle in its opening game against Sweden. The former Columbus Blue Jackets goalie made one dazzling save after another, yielding only a Nicklas Danielsson goal among the 39 shots fired his way in regulation and overtime. Popperle was also stellar in the shootout, stopping Carl Soderberg, Mattias Weinhandl, Jakob Silfverberg and Calle Jarnkrok in succession.

Team Sweden goalie Johan Gustafsson turned back 22 of 23 shots prior to the shootout, and stopped each of the first three Czech attackers in the shootout. Finally, 40-year-old veteran Petr Nedved solved Gustafsson to win the game for the Czechs.

Two days later, Popperle and the rest of the Czechs had one of their worst performances in recent memory. He allowed a pair of questionable goals and was pulled midway through regulation in what ultimately turned into a 7-0 romp for Finland. Philadelphia Flyers goaltending prospect Niko Hovinen was scarcely tested, turning back 18 mostly routine shots for the shutout and also being credited with an assist on a Leo Komarov shorthanded goal that opened the floodgates.

Janne Pesonen paced the Finnish attack with a pair of goals against the Czechs. After getting stymied by Russia, Pesonen's line with Juhamatti Aaltonen and Perttu Lindgren accounted for half of the goals Team Finland scored at the tournament. A former member of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Pesonen has tallied a dozen goals for HIFK Helsinki this season after spending the two previous campaigns in the KHL with Ak Bars Kazan. Lindgren, formerly of the Dallas Stars, led the SM-liiga in scoring last year but has struggled with injuries and consistency this year. Aaltonen, who was drafted by the St. Louis Blues in the ninth round (No. 284) of the 2003 Entry Draft but never played in North America, now plays in the KHL.

Following Team Sweden's shootout loss, they gave the nod to AIK Stockholm goalie Viktor Fasth in their second game. In a penalty-filled contest, Fasth held Team Russia to a single power-play goal by Alexander Ryazentsev early in the third period and turned back 23 of 24 shots. After 38-plus minutes of a scoreless deadlock, the Swedes rode power-play goals by Mattias Ekholm, Danielsson and Tony Martensson, plus an even strength goal by Silfverberg to a 4-1 win.

The Russians were back in action the next day, taking on the Czechs at Stockholm's Ericsson Globe arena. Witnessed by the smallest crowd (1,157) of any game at the tourney, the Czechs were clearly the hungrier and more aggressive team. HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice goaltender Jakub Kovar (whose NHL signing rights belong to Philadelphia) posted a 19-save shutout, while getting goal support from Nedved, Jakub Nakladal, Kamil Kreps and Petr Koukal.

The tourney's final game saw Nordic archrivals Sweden and Finland renew hostilities at the Globe. Staffan Kronwall's power play goal broke a scoreless deadlock late in the middle period and Jonas Andersson added some insurance for Fasth early in the third. Pesonen drew the Finns back within one after a shorthanded goal but Joel Lundqvist sealed the 3-1 win with a late empty-net goal.

Now that the Oddset tournament is finished, the players on the national teams have returned to their respective club teams and the elite leagues in the participating countries have resumed their schedules following a short hiatus. Most teams in Europe have about eight to 10 regular season games remaining before the start of the playoffs. From there, the attention will shift to the World Championship.

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