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No shortage of Finnish Olympic hopefuls

by Rocky Bonanno / Detroit Red Wings
If you were asked to name the two nations which have earned a medal in four of the past six Olympic hockey tournaments, Russia would be an easy guess. The other country? You'd be incorrect if you named Canada, the United States, Sweden or the Czech Republic.

The other is Finland, Russia's Scandinavian neighbor to the West. Since 1988, the Finns have earned two silver and two bronze medals. In search of that elusive gold, the tiny nation of 5.3 million has invited 48 players to its pre-Olympic camp at the Sport Institute of Finland in Vierumaki on Aug. 11-12. There will not be any ice time, only lectures and off-ice training.

The numbers of players named by Finland is the most of any of the 12 nations that will participate in the tournament in February in Vancouver, including runner-up Canada (46). Belarus, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Norway and Switzerland have yet to announce a preliminary roster.

The composition of Finland's candidate list includes 34 players who appeared in at least one game in the NHL in 2008-09. The remainder played primarily in the Swedish Elite League (5), Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (5), the Finnish SM-Liiga (3) and Switzerland's Nationalliga A.

Thirty of the players are under NHL contracts. Since the end of last season, four have left the NHL for the KHL -- Lasse Kukkonen (Philadelphia to Avangard Omsk), Ville Peltonen (Florida to Dynamo Minsk), Janne Pesonen (Pittsburgh to Ak Bars Kazan) and Ossi Vaananen (Vancouver to HC Dynamo Minsk).

Seventeen of the campers were members of Finland's silver medal-winning team in 2006.

Finland's reputation is that of a goalie factory, and six of the 11 Finnish netminders who appeared in at least one game in the NHL last season will be in Vierumaki. Five -- Niklas Backstrom, Miikka Kiprusoff, Kari Lehtonen, Pekka Rinne and Vesa Toskala -- are projected as starters for their respective NHL teams. Oddly enough, the one goaltender in camp who is not a clear-cut No. 1, Tampa Bay's Antero Niittymaki, was Finland's primary starter at the 2006 Games in Torino. In that tournament, Niittymaki posted a 5-1 record, three shutouts, 1.34 goals-against average and .951 save percentage en route to being named to the All-Star Team and Best Goaltender.

It would be shocking if Backstrom and Kiprusoff didn't nail down the top two spots for this year's team, leaving a battle for the little-used No. 3 goalie position. Four years ago that roster spot was occupied by Backstrom, who didn't play a single minute behind Niittymaki and No. 2 Fredrik Norrena.

Offensively, the Finns are in good hands with several high-scoring veterans who bring a wealth of Olympic and international experience. Olli Jokinen, Teemu Selanne, Tuomo Ruutu, Niklas Hagman and Mikko Koivu all scored 20 or more goals last season. Others, like Saku Koivu, Antti Miettinen and Jere Lehtinen, possess 20-goal talent. Valtteri Filppula and Ville Leino, both of the Detroit Red Wings, should be second- or third-line mainstays in 2009-10 and could elevate their game by February. But the hallmark of the Finnish style is responsible two-way play and not run-and-gun scoring.

Like Niittymaki, Selanne and Saku Koivu were named to the 2006 tournament All-Star Team, and Selanne was selected Best Forward. It will be especially interesting to see where they are come February -- the veterans are about to play an NHL season as linemates for the first time. Koivu signed with Anaheim as a free agent following a 13-season stay in Montreal. Koivu and Selanne could play as many as 62 games together and hone their chemistry before heading to Vancouver.

Eight of the 10 Finnish defensemen who appeared in at least one NHL game last season will be in Vierumaki. The exclusions were Teppo Numminen (who retired on Tuesday) and Ville Koistinen. The big names in camp are Kimmo Timonen, Joni Pitkanen and Sami Salo. Timonen was a tournament All-Star in 2006. Kukkonen, the former Flyer who now plays for Avangard Omsk, and Toni Lydman should also secure roster spots. Youngsters Sami Lepisto and Anssi Salmela have potential but are long shots at best and are probably in Vierumaki to gain experience for the future.

The final 23-man Olympic roster does not have to be registered with the International Ice Hockey Federation until Dec. 31, though injury substitutions can be added before the tournament begins Feb. 16.

Finland is currently fourth in the International Ice Hockey Federation's world rankings.

2010 Finnish Olympic candidates

Goalkeepers (6): Niklas Backstrom (Minnesota), Miikka Kiprusoff (Calgary), Kari Lehtonen (Atlanta), Antero Niittymaki (Tampa Bay), Pekka Rinne (Nashville), Vesa Toskala (Toronto).

Defensemen (17): Teemu Aalto (Linkopings HC), Topi Jaakola (Sodertalje), Mikko Jokela (Dynamo Minsk), Lasse Kukkonen (Avangard Omsk), Mikko Lehtonen (Frolunda Gothenburg), Sami Lepisto (Phoenix), Toni Lydman (Buffalo), Olli Malmivaara (JYP Jyvaskyla), Janne Niskala (Frolunda Gothenburg), Petteri Nummelin (HC Lugano), Joni Pitkanen (Carolina), Anssi Salmela (Atlanta), Sami Salo (Vancouver), Markus Seikola (Ilves Tampere), Kimmo Timonen (Philadelphia), Ossi Vaananen (Dynamo Minsk), Jyrki Valivaara (JYP Jyvaskyla).

Forwards (25):
Sean Bergenheim (NY Islanders), Valtteri Filppula (Detroit), Niklas Hagman (Toronto), Riku Hahl (Frolunda Gothenburg), Jarkko Immonen (Ak Bars Kazan), Jussi Jokinen (Carolina), Olli Jokinen (Calgary), Niko Kapanen (Ak Bars Kazan), Sami Kapanen (KalPa Kuopio), Mikko Koivu (Minnesota), Saku Koivu (Anaheim), Petri Kontiola (Metallurg Magnitogorsk), Lauri Korpikoski (Phoenix), Jere Lehtinen (Dallas), Ville Leino (Detroit), Antti Miettinen (Minnesota), Petteri Nokelainen (Anaheim), Oskar Osala (Washington), Ville Peltonen (Dynamo Minsk), Janne Pesonen (Ak Bars Kazan), Antti Pihlstrom (Nashville), Mika Pyorala (Philadelphia), Jarkko Ruutu (Ottawa), Tuomo Ruutu (Carolina), Teemu Selanne (Anaheim).

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