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World Cup

Strong goaltending will be crucial for Team Finland

Tuukka Rask must come up big behind inexperienced defense

by Rob Vollman / Correspondent

Despite never really scoring very much, Finland usually finds a way to advance deep in international tournaments.

At the World Cup of Hockey 2016, which will be played at Air Canada Centre in Toronto from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1, a key for Team Finland will be to get under its opponents' skin; frustration would lead to mistakes, and capitalizing on those mistakes will be especially important given its limited number of top scorers. 

Elite goaltending is another one of Team Finland's strengths, and it will be invaluable in countering its lack of experience on defense.

Very versatile veterans

Two of Team Finland's top forwards, Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild) and Jussi Jokinen (Florida Panthers), are very similar to each other. Each is 33 years old. Each is a top playmaker. Each is effective on faceoffs and in the shootout. Each has solid shot-based metrics.

Jokinen had 60 points in 81 games last season, making him Team Finland's leading scorer; Koivu's 56 points rank third. Over the past three seasons, Koivu has 116 assists and Jokinen has 114, putting each in the NHL's top 30 in that span. 

Video: MIN@DAL, Gm5: Koivu scores twice, including OT winner

In the faceoff circle, Koivu has an NHL career winning percentage of 53.7 percent, and Jokinen's is 53.5 percent.

In the shootout, Koivu is 39-for-94 in the NHL, and Jokinen is 36-for-90. No other member of Team Finland has more than eight career shootout goals in the League. 

In terms of shot-based metrics, Koivu has boosted Minnesota's share of shot attempts by 6.7 percent over the past four seasons; Jokinen is plus-4.6 percent.

Filling the net

Given that many of Team Finland's top point-producers are playmakers, a goal-scorer like center Aleksander Barkov (Panthers) is particularly important to its chances.

Video: NYI@FLA, Gm5: Barkov ties the game on Petrovic's dish

Barkov had 59 points last season; he, Jokinen and Koivu are the only Team Finland players who topped 44 points. Barkov was the only Finn to score more than 20 goals last season (28). His 171 shots on goal were the most among Team Finland's forwards and rank second behind Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen's 202.

As reflected by his sixth-place finish in voting for the Selke Trophy, Barkov is not just an offensive weapon, but also a complete two-way presence who can protect leads and shut down top opponents.

Rattling the boards

The scarcity of elite scoring on its roster means Team Finland will rely on players like forward Leo Komarov (Toronto Maple Leafs), who can get under opponents' skin to cause mistakes and create scoring opportunities.

Video: BUF@TOR: Komarov opens the scoring 25 seconds in

Like Barkov, Komarov is no stranger to taking on top opponents. He also has a highly physical dimension to his game. Last season, Komarov's 283 hits were fifth in the League, and his NHL career average of 4.1 hits per game ranks second to Matt Martin (Maple Leafs) over the past four seasons.

Electric youth

Team Finland's considerable experience up front doesn't extend to its defense. Its seven defensemen have combined for 842 NHL games, which works out to an average of about 120 games each.

That's why Team Finland will be relying heavily on Ristolainen and Sami Vatanen (Anaheim Ducks), who lead its defensemen with 194 NHL games each. 

Video: BUF@ANA: Vatanen wrists it home to provide lead on PP

Each player led his respective team's defensemen in scoring in each of the past two seasons.

Lights-out goaltending

With limited goal support and an inexperienced defense, Team Finland will be counting on goalie Tuukka Rask (Boston Bruins) to bounce back from a mediocre season and play at his very best. 

Video: BOS@NJD: Rask hugs the post, stops Gionta

Rask led the League with a .931 save percentage and a 1.97 goals-against average as a rookie in 2009-10, and won the Vezina Trophy in 2013-14. That's the level of play that will be required for Team Finland to win this tournament.

Is that a realistic expectation? Yes. Rask's .924 career NHL save percentage ranks second to New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider's .925 (minimum 50 games), and his .932 even-strength save percentage ranks first.

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