Team Finland: Five Players That Can Lead Them To Gold
On a team that is devoid of the same kind of offensive star power found on Team Canada or Team Russia, the Finns will need to rely on their veteran leadership and goal tending if they are to make any waves in this year's Winter Olympics.
Hmm, veteran leadership and goal tending. These are the same key ingredients required for a team to win a Stanley Cup. Olympic gold is earned the same way.
Though some would say that Finland's improbable run to the gold medal game in 2006 makes their chances of getting there again in 2010 less than optimal (citing the lightning-never-strikes-twice cliche), their chances this year may actually be better.
Unlike the Canadians, Russians, and Swedes, Finland is an underdog heading into their first game against Belarus on Wednesday. However, these lions have plenty of bite in them and should not be so easily overlooked as potential gold medal winners.
Five players in particular will give Finland an excellent chance of taking gold for the first time in team history.
Kimmo Timonen: Defense, Alternate Captain
Timonen has been solid as a rock this season for a Flyers team that has been anything but. Though he does not possess the physical enormity and grittiness of Flyers teammate Chris Pronger, Timonen's durability, speed, and offensive instincts make him every bit as valuable to his team's success.
Timonen's value to his national team is greater still. As one of Finland's many multiple-Olympians (this is his third tournament), Timonen provides the kind of veteran poise and leadership any team would require of their No. 1 defenseman. Additionally, as Olympic hockey is typically more a game of skill than brawn, Timonen's smallish frame (5'10", 194 lbs) will be less of a drawback, while his mobility and offensive acumen will be allowed to shine.
At 34, this may be Timonen's last kick at the Olympic can. Combined with his experience and skill, his hunger for Olympic gold will prove to be invaluable to his team.
Mikko Koivu: Center
Mikko's older brother, Saku, is once again captain of Team Finland, and deservedly so. However, his little brother is quickly developing into an outstanding captain in his own right with the Minnesota Wild.
At 26, Mikko Koivu is in the prime of his NHL career and this couldn't bode better for Team Finland. An outstanding play-maker, above-average defender, strong skater, and clutch goal-scorer, Koivu possesses all of the qualities one would ask for in a No. 1 center. Like most European players, the one knock against his game in the NHL is his minimal physical game; however, this should prove to be less problematic at the Olympic level.
If his rise during his young NHL career is any indication, Mikko Koivu is set to become one of the best leaders in hockey. His contributions to Team Finland will go a long way towards proving this, inasmuch as he gives them a shot at gold.
Teemu Selanne: Right Wing, Alternate Captain
For most hockey teams (NHL, national or otherwise), having an aging 39-year-old winger as their most dangerous offensive weapon would spell almost certain doom for their chances of success.
Unless that player is Teemu Selanne.
Though he's not quite the offensive juggernaut he was in his prime, Teemu Selanne is one of those incredibly rare players that can score goals, seemingly at will. Even pushing 40, he still possess the kind of speed and skilled hands most players 10 years his senior would kill for.
Selanne is now the elder-statesman of the entire contingent of NHL Olympians, as this will be his fifth straight tournament appearance. He may not quite produce as much as he did last time in Torino (he was tied for the Olympic scoring lead with 11 points in 6 games), but his leadership and innate offensive brilliance will be invaluable in Finland's quest for gold.
Antero Niittymaki: Goal
As surprising as Finland's performance was during the 2006 Winter Games, nothing was more improbable than Antero Niittymaki's emergence as the tournament's MVP.
Niittymaki's brilliance in goal was the biggest reason Finland skated away with the silver medal four years ago and, though he is the designated back up this time around, Team Finland GM Jari Kurri has got to be very comfortable in the knowledge that Niittymaki is available should he need to call upon him.
Niittymaki has already played his way off the bench and into the starter's role on his NHL team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Should Finland's No. 1 goalie falter in goal or go down to injury, he has already proved more than capable of leading his team in net. Inasmuch as he provides Finland with one of the tournament's deepest goalie stables, Niittymaki's importance to his team cannot be understated.
And speaking of Finland's No. 1 goalie...
Miikka Kiprusoff: Goal
People often talk of players possessing "quiet confidence" but, if there's such a thing as "quiet arrogance", Miikka Kiprusoff has it.
After bowing out (some would say less than gracefully) of the past two Olympic games, Kiprusoff made it clear to GM Jari Kurri that his selection to Team Finland and his role as the undisputed starter in goal would be synonymous. The quiet, enigmatic goalie has been one of the best to play the position over the past several seasons in the NHL and has done everything but win a Stanley Cup.
He currently sports a 2.18 GAA and .925 save percentage as the Calgary Flames' starter. Not bad numbers at all, but numbers he may likely need to improve on during his Olympic campaign, if he is to give his team a real chance at gold.
As Team Finland lacks their version of a Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin, if a game turns into an offensive contest, it is one they're likely to lose. This means that Kipper will need to regularly be the difference maker for his team.
For large stretches of his career in Calgary, Kiprusoff has regularly put his team on his back and played the role of game-stealer with aplomb. Whether or not he'll be able to do the same for Team Finland is still up in the air. However, there are few other goaltenders in the world one would select ahead of Miikka Kiprusoff to lead their team to gold.
Really, just ask him.