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World Cup

Team Finland defense young but talented

Group led by 21-year old Rasmus Ristolainen has confidence in itself entering World Cup

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Director, Editorial

HELSINKI, Finland -- For the defensemen on Team Finland, it is more about how old they feel rather than how old they are.

"Age is just a number for me and I think our [defense] core is pretty good," said 21-year-old Rasmus Ristolainen, part of the likely top pairing for Team Finland for the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

Said Ville Pokka, 22, who likely will be on the third pair: "It doesn't matter if you are 30 or 20. If you are good, you are good."

How good the Team Finland defensemen will be in the best-on-best World Cup remains up for debate.

Their youth, however, is undeniable.

Of the six defensemen most likely to be in the lineup for its first game, against Team North America at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sept. 18 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, SN, TVA Sports), Sami Vatanen, at 25 years and 3 months, is the elder statesman. Jyrki Jokipakka is 25 years, 1 month. None of the other four have reached their 23rd birthday.

Pokka, Olli Maatta and Esa Lindell are 22.

Video: CGY@BUF: Ristolainen's goal ties the score at 1

But it's not just their ages that are surprising. The NHL experience each possesses is perhaps even more startling.

Vatanen, who plays for the Anaheim Ducks, and Ristolainen, who plays for the Buffalo Sabres, each have 194 games of regular-season experience. Maatta has played 165 games and won the Stanley Cup this spring with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Collectively, the group has played 666 regular-season NHL games.

By contrast, the seven defensemen on Team Canada's roster average 663 NHL games per player.

"They are going through some big changes there with the national team defense, but they are talented guys," Team Finland goalie Tuukka Rask said. "You have to see that as a good thing more than a problem.

"The guys are all good skaters, good puck movers; you just play to what your strengths are. The game, in general, now is a young man's game. There are a lot of very talented young players in the game today, so if you are 22 or 23 you can easily be a top-two player in your team."

Though the players individually don't have much experience in the NHL, they have played together for the national team on and off for the past decade.

Ristolainen, Pokka and Lindell won the gold medal together on the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Video: BUF@CGY: Ristolainen records hat trick vs Flames

Leading the group is assistant coach Teppo Numminen, who played 1,372 games in the NHL. Recently retired defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who played 1,108 games and won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, is an advisor.

General manager Jere Lehtinen picked the team and didn't look at birth certificates when he did it. He looked at skill and an ability to mesh with the rest of the team. He insists he had no other choice but to pick the six young players that likely will be the ones that play for Team Finland.

"These guys are coming up and it's happening very quickly," Lehtinen said. "Those guys, when they were playing World Juniors, they had to learn how to win big games and big tournaments. They want to get better every day.

"Even though they are young, we kind of feel good. We are not worried about them. It's a good mix when you look at the experience we have at forward, and of course the goaltending will help that defense group out."

Goalie Pekka Rinne said he's been impressed by the confidence Team Finland's young players have shown during training camp at Hartwall Arena, especially the defensemen.

"These young guys are amazing," he said. "They play with such a confidence. It is not cockiness; it's a healthy confidence."

That confidence comes from the success they have had as a group and individually. They have been doubted in the past and have delivered.

Few thought Ristolainen would emerge so quickly as a No. 1 defenseman with the Buffalo Sabres, but that is the role he is playing. The idea of Maatta being a key piece of the Penguins' championship run was not a popular one when he went through some growing pains earlier in the season.

Silencing critics has been a constant for Team Finland's defensemen and they see no reason why it shouldn't continue.

"It doesn't matter if you are young," Ristolainen said. "We have seven very good [defensemen]. Everyone can play with the puck and without the puck."

And they have the confidence of their older teammates. The young players are respected for their work ethic and ability to merge into the team, but also for the winning pedigree they bring from the junior national teams.

The Team Finland veterans know these players are good and can help them win now. They also understand this group is being molded to help the national team for the next decade and beyond.

"As long as they play to their strengths and do what the coaches say, I don't think there will be any problem," Rask said. "But the truth is, they are young and this is a very good experience builder for them."

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