Finland shocked the hockey world four years ago by advancing to the gold-medal game at the Torino Olympics. But a loss there to hated rival Sweden took some of the luster off what should have been a Cinderella story for the ages.
Now, as the international hockey community descends upon Vancouver for the 2010 Olymics, questions remain about the ability of the Finns to write a compelling sequel to their odyssey from also-rans to silver medalists four years ago -- especially in the face of stiff podium competition from the host Canadians, powerful Russia and Sweden, the reigning gold medalists.
But while others question the credentials of this Finnish team, those inside the dressing room remain supremely confident in the work ethic and adherence to the fundamentals that have defined the Finnish game plan since professionals were introduced to the Olympic hockey tournament in 1998.
Perhaps the Finns' biggest reason for confidence is the depth of their goaltending. Finland has been producing some of the game's best goalies for the past decade and they will bring three world-class goalies to Vancouver.
How good is Finnish goaltending? Well, Antero Niittymaki
was the best goalie in the Torino tournament, but the 29-year-old goalie, who now calls Tampa bay home, will likely be the third-string goalie this time around.
Minnesota's Nick Backstrom, he of the 115 wins in 213 NHL appearances, also will not start.
That honor falls to Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff
, who is having one of the best seasons of his stellar career. His .925 save percentage is the second-highest of his career and his 2.19 goals-against average is top-five in the League.
Most importantly, the last time we saw him on the international stage, Kiprusoff was leading the Finns to another improbable second-place finish, backstopping a plucky team to the final of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, also played on Canadian soil.
While the Finns will no doubt find their foundation in their goalie play, the play of the big four on the blue line -- Toni Lydman
, Joni Pitkanen
, Sami Salo
and Kimmo Timonen
-- will have to carry the load defensively.
Carolina's Pitkanen and Philadelphia's Timonen will carry the water offensively from the back end, while Lydman and Salo will most likely be deployed as the team's shutdown defensemen.
Timonen might be the best of the bunch and he is having another very solid year for a Philadelphia Flyers
team that has found its way after a rugged start.
Timonen is playing almost 23 minutes a game for the Flyers and plays in all situations, a role he reprise with the Finns.
Pitkanen is having a breakout season after a run deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs with Carolina last season. Pitkanen has 33 points, tops among all Finnish defenseman in the NHL, and plays better than 27 minutes a game for the Hurricanes.
Both Buffalo's Lydman and Vancouver's Salo are more understated players, but still integral. Lydman is a very good skater, who reads the transition very well, and can is very responsible in his own end. Salo has a plus-16 rating for the Canucks, but he can also be deadly from the point on the power play. Three of his five goals have come with the man-advantage.
While the Finns do not have an explosive offensive, per se; they somehow manage to score goals. Remember Teemu Selanne
and Saku Koivu
were among the leading scorers in Torino and both made the all-tournament team.
Perhaps, they will be even more effective this time around as the good friends are playing together regularly for the Anaheim Ducks
and have plenty of time to rekindle their obvious chemistry. Both players have been plagued by injury, but are now back in the swing of things.
Finland's true strength up front lays down the middle. Not only do they have Saku Koivu
at center, but they have his younger brother Mikko Koivu
, as well as Olli Jokinen
No Finn has been more effective this season in the offensive end than Minnesota's Mikko Koivu
. The big, straight-ahead center is averaging almost a point a game and has the most points out of the 20 Finns that have played in the NHL this season.
Jokinen, meanwhile, has been an enigma for much of the 2009-10 season. So much so, in fact, that the Calgary Flames
gave up on him earlier this month, shipping him to the New York Rangers
. It will be interesting to see if the move wakes up Jokinen, who has still managed to score 37 points in 59 games this year. If Jokinen is on his game, he is a handful for opposing team's to handle, especially as the No. 2 punch after Mikko Koivu
Team Finland has all the tools to make a deep run in this tournament, if it gets goal-scoring. Amazingly, it is still 39-year-old Selanne who is being asked to provide that firepower. Four years ago, he tied for the Olympic scoring lead with 11 points, including 3 goals. In four previous Olympic tournaments, he has 20 goals and 35 points in 25 games. Plus, he has already overcome a broken hand and broken jaw to be ready for his fifth Olympics, so what is to say that he can't be the go-to guy for the Finns yet again?
Striking it rich
Simply, the Finns aren't talented enough to blow out the elite teams in this tournament. That means they will play the type of one-mistake games like the gold-medal contest against the Swedes four years ago in Torino. To prosper in those blink-and-you-lose scenarios, goaltending must be impeccable. Certainly, Kiprusoff has the credentials to be the difference-maker. Now, he just needs to deliver on his reputation.