Finland-Belarus Preview

Finland-Belarus Preview

Published Feb. 16, 2010 9:23 p.m. ET

With balanced scoring and seemingly unbeatable goaltending, Finland finally appeared to emerge as a legitimate Olympic hockey power during the 2006 Olympics.

However, it settled for silver while a longtime rival had gold draped around their necks.

Finland tries again for that elusive first gold as it opens its 2010 Olympic schedule Wednesday against a banged-up Belarus team.

Coming into play four years ago in Turin, not too much was expected from the Finns as they were in a grouping that included Canada and the Czech Republic. Instead, they won all five games in the preliminary round by a 19-2 margin.


Finland then beat the United States and blanked Russia in the playoff round before falling 3-2 in an all-Nordic final to Sweden. Still, Finland had five of the top seven scorers in the tournament and a goaltender who was named MVP.

For Finland to finally get the gold, it will look to a pair of players from Anaheim in Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu, who were tied for the scoring lead in 2006 with 11 points each.

Now 39, Selanne still has scoring skills - he's tallied 17 goals in 37 games with the Ducks - but has missed a large chunk of the season with a broken hand and jaw. Koivu, playing his first season with Anaheim after 13 in Montreal, has 12 goals and 33 points despite sitting out nine games with a variety of injuries.

Other players returning from 2006 include Ville Peltonen, Olli Jokinen and Jere Lehtinen.

Peltonen, now playing in Russia after eight NHL seasons, had nine points in Turin. Jokinen, recently acquired by the New York Rangers, and Lehtinen, now in his 14th season with Dallas, each had eight points.

A key to the Finns' success in Turin will likely be riding the bench in Vancouver. Antero Niittymaki recorded three shutouts in six games en route to MVP honors.

This time, the Tampa Bay goaltender will be backing up fellow NHL players Niklas Backstrom of Minnesota and Miikka Kiprusoff of Calgary.

Kiprusoff (27-19-9, 2.18 goals-against average, three shutouts) was picked to play in Turin, but he sat out with an injury. The 2006 Vezina Trophy winner led the NHL last season with 45 wins and 76 games played, but he struggled again in the playoffs as the Flames were eliminated in the opening round for the fourth straight season.

Backstrom set career-highs with 37 wins and eight shutouts last season under coach Jacques Lemaire and his defense-oriented system. This season under new bench boss Todd Richards, the Helsinki native has just 23 wins and one shutout.

Backstrom was also selected to play in Turin but didn't see any action.

Finland's first test comes against a team that's short-handed but has shown the ability to surprise. In 2002 at Salt Lake, Belarus finished atop its group and stunned Sweden in the quarterfinals before being routed by Canada.

After failing to qualify among the top 12 in Italy, Belarus can expect difficulty trying to duplicate its success from eight years ago as Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn and Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski were missing when final rosters were submitted Monday.

Kostitsyn, who had 12 goals and 25 points in 40 games with the Canadiens, hasn't played since undergoing knee surgery Jan. 8. Meanwhile, the last-place Maple Leafs have been without Grabovski (42 games, seven goals, 18 assists) since Jan. 3 due to a broken left wrist.

Defenseman Ruslan Salei, who's missed 55 games with Colorado this season following back surgery, was on the final roster.

To provide offense, new coach Mikhail Zakharov may look to Sergei Kostitsyn, Andrei's younger brother and Canadiens teammate. Sergei Kostitsyn has split time between Montreal (30 GP, 2 G, 8 A) and its top affiliate in Hamilton, Ontario (16 games, 4 goals, 9 assists).

Another player to watch is Konstantin Koltsov, a former first-round pick of Pittsburgh in 1999 currently playing in Russia.