Defense over offense for Finland
The 2006 Winter Olympic Games are around the corner. Eurohockey.net provides a preview of all 12 participating teams. In our article, we look into Finland. Second place in 2002 World Cup has fans still buzzing in excitement, but this year all might be different.
Finland first appeared in olympic ice hockey in Cortina D’Ampezzo in 1952. The team didn’t qualify for the 1956-games, but since 1960 Finland has been a regular. Some success was archieved in 1976 with fourth place, but since the late 80’s Finland has been gradually rising in the rankings. In Calgary 1988 Finland archieved second place and their first silverware. 1994 and 1998 Finland took home bronze medals, but 2002 games ended in a disappointing fifth place.
Headcoach for team Finland is Erkka Westerlund. Westerlund was named after former coach Raimo Summanen was sacked in 2004.
Under Westerlund Finland reached quaterfinals in 2005 Vienna.
Other coaches include Hannu Virta and Risto Dufva.
The only problem for Team Finland goaltending in recent years has been the lack of a clear leader. Good goalies seem to grow on trees, but often there has been changes in the pecking order in the middle of the tournament. This year the situation seemed crystal clear, Miikka Kiprusoff as first choise and Kari Lehtonen second choice.
Unfortunate for the Finns, but neither will attend the games in Torino.
Antero Niittymäki outplayed Lehtonen in the AHL finals last year, but his inexperience at world stage causes some doubts. Backups Fredrik Norrena and Niklas Bäckström are team Finland regulars and top netminders in European rinks, but their abilities haven’t been fully tested against NHL stars.
Despite the doubts goaltending is not an area the Finns should be worried about.
Like goaltending the Finnish defense was hard hit with injuries. Star defenseman Joni Pitkänen was replaced by Petteri Nummelin and Ossi Väänänen by Antti-Jussi Niemi. Nummelin is better at the offensive end of the rink and backs up top defender Kimmo Timonen in this department.
Veteran Teppo Numminen is one of the key figures in the team, and Aki Berg, Sami Salo and Toni Lydman are solid in their own end.
Losing Pitkänen and Väänänen might prove crucial for team Finland. The Finns live from their defence; the loss of Kiprusoff in goal can be dealt with, but Niemi and Nummelin need to step up in order to compete with the likes of Sweden and Canada.
Finland has one of the finest trios in the game in their first line of Lehtinen-Koivu-Selänne. A lot of pressure is on their shoulders. This is specially the case as Tuomo Ruutu and Sami Kapanen are out with injuries. Olli Jokinen finds himself as the lone star in the second line. Jokinen will likely be joined by Jussi Jokinen and Ville Peltonen, who need to score some goals if good results are to be expected.
Mikko Koivu as the third line center is a future leader and will have to step up in this tournament.
Finland is the smallest of the top teams, which might play as a weakness or as a strenght. If penalties will be handed out more (as the NHL has done) combined with an olympic size rink the fast Finns will be strong. In the recent years Finland has enjoyed its status as an underdog and surprised the pundits on many occasions (for example the World Cup).
Finland relies on playing a tight defensive game but if their goalies fail, the offence will have a hard time scoring those extra goals.
Players to follow
Goalie is always the key to a winning team. Antero Niittymäki has played well with the Flyers and taken the status of number one goalie. The first line of every team needs to score goals and therefore the eyes should be more on the second and third line centers, Olli Jokinen and Mikko Koivu.
Jokinen has been scoring well with Florida this season and Koivu is expected to be the future savior for Minnesota. They have to lead their lines and more than anybody else these two players are the keys to success for team Finland.
Coach Raimo Summanen was sacked after World Cup 2002 due to out of the rink arguments, despite archieving second place, perhaps biggest success in Finnish hockey ever. Current coach Westerlund has to feel the pressure after the World Cup success.
Of the top teams Finland has been the hardest hit with injuries and ”injuries”. The Finnish crowds have been watching their stars play in the NHL, but still their management claims them unable to attend the olympics. Ruutu and Väänänen are out for their club teams as well, but Niinimaa, Pitkänen, Kapanen, Lehtonen and Kiprusoff have all played full NHL games in recent days.
Finland starts the games against relatively easy opponents (Switzerland, Italy), good results from these games might boost their morale and help their tournament.
Finland has a fairly small selection of top players and that combined with many injuries will make Finnish success hard to archive. Top four finnish would be a positive result.
Team Finland roster for the 2006 Olympic Games.
Group A schedule for the 2006 Olympic Games.