Finns are in it to win it
Finns are in it to win it
Hard-working crew has enough talent to contend
In St. Petersburg, the Finns begin the quest for their third World Championship gold medal of al time after 1995 and 2011, and they’re in the mix to win it all. Even though not all their big names are here, it’s worth noting that nearly half of this year’s roster took part in the 2011 run in Slovakia. The Finns won’t be outworked, and their team concept is second to none in the hockey world.
Finland last medaled at the Worlds in 2014, settling for silver after the Russians beat them 5-2 in the final in Minsk. They also came second the last time the Worlds were held in Russia back in 2007, losing 4-2 to Canada in the gold medal game in Moscow. So there’s no shortage of motivation for the boys in blue and white.
Finland isn’t bringing an elite NHL netminder in his prime to this tournament. But that may not matter. When the Finns last triumphed in 2011, they rode Petri Vehanen, who was then at his KHL peak with Ak Bars Kazan. Taking Mikko Koskinen as their starter here follows a similar pattern. The former New York Islander, who backed up Pekka Rinne at the 2014 Worlds, led the 2016 KHL playoffs with a 94.9 save percentage and five shutouts in 15 games for SKA St. Petersburg. The 27-year-old Vantaa native will be very comfortable performing in this city.
Backup Juuse Saros (Milwaukee Admirals) became a household name in Finland when he shone in the 2014 World Junior gold medal run in Sweden. With Rinne the undisputed number one in Nashville, the nimble 21-year-old Saros is still honing his craft with the team’s AHL affiliate. The third goalie, Niklas Backstrom, is in the twilight of his NHL career at age 38. Once a starter for the Finnish national team, he’s played just 44 games in the last three seasons with the Minnesota Wild and his new club, the Calgary Flames. Backstrom simply wants to prove that he can still contribute in some way.
There are no Norris Trophy candidates on the Finnish blue line, but again, it may not matter. Mostly, it’s a solid blend of Liiga, KHL, and AHL experience.
Topi Jaakola (Jokerit Helsinki), Lasse Kukkonen (Karpat Oulu), and Anssi Salmela (Brynas Gavle) bring valuable winning experience from the 2011 team. Esa Lindell, a Dallas prospect who had 42 points in 78 games with the Texas Stars, has the offensive upside to make an impact on the power play, as does Ville Pokka of the Rockford Ice Hogs, a Chicago prospect who had 45 points in 78 games. The disciplined Finns will take care of their own end first, and that’s been a successful formula for them.
Historically, the Finns have had trouble producing blue-chip offensive prospects, but the outlook has shifted dramatically in recent years. There’s great anticipation over the IIHF World Championship debut of Patrik Laine and Sebastian Aho, two-thirds of the high-flying line that, with Jesse Puljujarvi, carried Finland to World Junior gold at home in January. The 18-year-old Laine, whose shot has reaped comparisons to Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, could potentially end up supplanting the U.S.’s Auston Matthews as the number one overall pick in June’s NHL Draft. He led Tappara Tampere to the 2016 Liiga championship as the playoff MVP. At 194 cm, Laine is the tallest player on the team.
The Minnesota Wild have provided two key veterans who have stepped up against this year’s host nation in the past. Hard-nosed captain Mikko Koivu tallied the OT winner against Russia in the 2007 semi-finals, dealing the Russians their first loss on Moscow ice in World Championship history. Mikael Granlund famously scored a lacrosse-style goal against Russia in the 2011 semi-final win in Slovakia.
From the Florida Panthers comes assistant captain Jussi Jokinen, a two-time Olympian who will prove useful for faceoffs and shootouts. Jokinen is looking for his first IIHF gold at age 33. His Florida teammate Aleksander Barkov is coming off a career year (28-31-59) at the tender age of 20, and has shone on the club’s top line with Jaromir Jagr.
Factor in the grit and physical leadership of Leo Komarov (Toronto Maple Leafs), and this will not be an easy bunch to contend with.
This is head coach Kari Jalonen’s swan song behind the Finnish bench before handing the reins over to Lauri Marjamaki for the World Cup of Hockey in September. Jalonen, 56, has agreed to coach SC Bern of the Swiss NLA next season. Watch for the Oulu native to emphasize tight defence, clogging up the neutral zone but not adopting a passive approach – the Finns have enough offensive weapons here to take the initiative.
One of Jalonen’s three assistants is Ville Peltonen, who starred with Saku Koivu and now-World Championship GM Jere Lehtinen when Finland won its first world title in Stockholm in 1995. It’s the second consecutive year in this role for the 43-year-old former national team captain, who will accompany Jalonen to Bern next year.
Currently fourth in the IIHF World Ranking, Finland has brought a good enough team to Russia to improve on that standing. Apart from the (admittedly major) lack of Pekka Rinne in net, this is a more promising-looking roster on paper than the one that claimed silver in 2014. The Finns will face their stiffest tests in Group B against the Canadians and Americans. With a consistent effort, they’re capable of topping the group. Anything less than a medal should be considered a disappointment.
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