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World Cup

Goalie decision looming large for Team Finland

Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne vying to be starter at World Cup

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / Director, Editorial

HELSINKI, Finland -- There generally are few questions about Team Finland in an international tournament.

You know you will get a unified team that covers any shortages of skill with a work ethic unsurpassed by any other team in the tournament and a cohesive system that serves as a safety blanket.

But the Team Finland that will play in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 does present some questions.

None of the questions are more important than which goalie will be the starter.

In a short tournament, the starting goalie might be the most important player on the ice. In a short tournament with a one-game semifinal after three games of pool play, the starting goalie can become the difference maker, good or bad, through the effectiveness of his play.

The margin for error is miniscule.

But Team Finland does not know who its starting goalie will be yet.

It won't be Mikko Koskinen, the youngest of the three goalies in training camp at Hartwall Arena. But there is no consensus whether Pekka Rinne or Tuukka Rask will be the No. 1 when pool play starts for Finland against Team North America at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Sept. 18 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).

Video: DET@BOS: Rask robs Ericsson with his glove

"We haven't talked about that too much," Rask said when asked for his thoughts on the battle for the No. 1 spot. "There has been a lot of buildup here in Finland about who is going to be the No. 1 and they are saying they should lock it in before the tournament. But we don't really take that pressure and we don't really care."

With Team Finland going through a changing of the guard in regard to the national team roster -- 13 of the 23 players for the World Cup are under of the age of 26 -- it's imperative it receives quality goaltending from the start.

Nowhere is the greening of the roster more apparent than on defense. None of Team Finland's expected top six defensemen, Jyrki Jokipakka, Olli Maatta, Esa Lindell, Ville Pokka, Sami Vatanen and Rasmus Ristolainen, has reached his 26th birthday.

So a calm and capable hand in the crease is imperative. Team Finland believes it can't go wrong with Rinne or Rask.

"We'll see on that one," general manager Jere Lehtinen said. "All those goalies are good, so we know how they can play. We'll see how it goes with the coaching staff. I don't think that is a worry for us. They can all get the job done."

Rinne, 33, made it to the Western Conference Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, when the Nashville Predators lost Game 7 to the San Jose Sharks. But his regular-season numbers dipped a bit from 2014-15. He won 34 games, but his save percentage dropped from .923 to .908, and his goals-against average rose from 2.18 to 2.48.

Video: SJS@NSH, Gm6: Rinne denies Burns' power-play chance

Yet Rinne insists he is ready to take on the No. 1 job for his country.

"I feel good [physically]; when you get older that is always the main thing, just feeling good about yourself," Rinne said. "I had a good summer. I'm really excited. Obviously with the national team, this is my biggest tournament and I'm excited for that. It was my goal and my dream to make this team, and I'm just excited to get it going."

Rask, 29, had a .915 save percentage with the Boston Bruins last season, the worst of his NHL career. His 2.56 goals-against average was his second-highest.

But Rask was Finland's starting goalie in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, winning a quarterfinal game against Russia and the bronze-medal game against the United States. He missed the semifinal loss to Sweden because of an illness.

"I'm sure we will both get a game and then go from there," Rask said. "Whoever plays, the other guy supports him. We try not to make it a bigger deal than it is."

But make no mistake, this is a big deal and neither goalie is ready to cede ground to the other.

"I want to play. Tuukka wants to play," Rinne said. "The only thing I can control is if I get my opportunity to be ready for it."

Who gets to play the most may be the biggest question facing Team Finland coach Lauri Marjamaki, and he is not tipping his hand.

Rask and Rinne each likely will play one of the pretournament games against Team Sweden this week; at Hartwall Arena on Thursday (Noon ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports) and at Scandinavium in Gothenburg, Sweden on Saturday (Noon ET; ESPN3, SN, TVA Sports). The decision could be made at any point after that, so each goalie may only get one opportunity to state his case for earning the job each covets.

It may seem unfair, but it's the deal Rask and Rinne each agreed to as a condition of joining the fraternity of top-tier goalies.

"As a goalie you grow up in that culture that you might have one opportunity, one chance, and there is only one guy playing on the ice," Rinne said. "In this kind of tournament you are already proud that you are on the team, but at the same time you are used to playing a lot of games."

It is a cruel fate waiting for Rask or Rinne, two of the best goalies in the world. But it's a fate for which they reluctantly are prepared. There will be no pouting or protestations.

"It's a national team tournament. There is no time to be selfish," Rask said. "Obviously everybody wants to play, but it is a whole different situation from your club in the NHL. It's a short tournament and it is a national team tournament, so you will do whatever the coaches tell you to do."

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