FINLAND’S CHANCES COULD BE SHELVED WITH KIPRUSOFF

Team Finland is hoping to re-attain their success at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. The Finns have 20 players returning from that tournament and are fairly optimistic about their chances. Even after goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff was forced to publicly withdraw from the Olympics for health reasons. A low move by the Finnish Hockey brass who knew Kiprusoff needed time to recuperate but named him to the squad anyways, and now “Kipper” has been unfairly criticized in his native land. Without Kiprusoff, the main reason the Finns placed 2nd at the World Cup, Finland will most likely turn to Kari Lehtonen to shoulder the load.

Lehtonen has not seen action due to injury and questions about his game shape have been raised. There have also been notions that Leaf prospect Tuukka Rask will join the roster after Kiprusoff’s departure. This could be a reality considering the injury to Boston ‘s Hannu Toivonen although many suggest Philadelphia ‘s Antero Niittymaki will be given the role following his tremendous start with the Flyers. No matter which way you look at it, the Finns went from having some of the best goaltending in the tournament to some of the most questionable, and it could have an affect on the whole team.

On defence, Finland is looking big, with all but two D-men standing at least 6’2” and weighing in at 200lbs or more. Teppo Numminen leads in experience and has a strong presence both on the ice and in the locker room. Expect to see Numminen in most penalty killing situations. There are great offensive upsides to defencemen like Kimmo Timonen, Sami Salo and Joni Pitkanen who all have the ability to quarterback the powerplay. More importantly, these three defenders are very strong in their own end, using their size and strength to their advantage. These three defenders have helped quash the stereotype of the softer European hockey player. As long as Ossi Vaananen is given the sixth-man ice-time instead of Aki Berg, who has been a disappointment since being drafted in the first round by the L.A. Kings, the Finnish defence will be a formidable foe every game of the tournament.

Up front the Finns have some excellent firepower, but lack some of the depth other nations possess. With the recent news of ankle surgery for Tuomo Ruutu of the Chicago Blackhawks, that depth took another hit. Expect to see Jussi Jokinen to take the spot of Tuomo Ruutu on the roster and in all likelihood, be paired on the second line with brother Olli. The Fins do have some good checking talent, but experience is a question for these players. Jarko Ruutu has been to the Olympics before and has proven his ability as an effective role player in the NHL. However, he is prone to making bad decisions and selfish plays at times. Mikko Koivu will be one of the best checking centres in the league but that day has not yet come. For now, he shows holes in his play that other nations’ stars will exploit. And with the fourth line carrying two Swiss League players, Jukka Hentunen and Ville Peltonen, experience is running a little thing on the bottom two lines. The scoring lines however, can get the job done. Saku Koivu will almost definitely centre Sami Kapanen and Teemu Selanne, who has had a strong resurgence in Anaheim this year. Jeri Lehtinen could end up on that line as well but he may be placed on the second unit to spread out the scoring. The Finnish squad will be a competitive one but without Kiprusoff in goal their chances of medalling become a lot slimmer. Expect the Finns to finish sixth, behind the United States .