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Sunday, September 12, 2004
Goalie forces foes to take Finns seriously

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

TORONTO -- The pre-World Cup of Hockey scouting report on Finland went something like this: If the Miikka Kiprusoff of last season shows up for this tournament, the Finns have at least a fighting chance.

Miikka Kiprusoff has a 1.18 GAA in five games.
The implication, of course, was that the Miikka Kiprusoff that turned in an NHL record 1.69 GAA in 38 games and then led the Calgary Flames to a seventh game of the Stanley Cup final wasn't likely to return to that form, that he couldn't possibly be that good.

Could he?

According to Kiprusoff's Team Finland teammates, he may indeed be different than last season.

He might be better.

"It wasn't a surprise for me at all. I think he's playing even better now than in the playoffs," Olli Jokinen offered.

"I haven't been surprised," added defenseman Toni Lydman, who saw the Kiprusoff magic up close as a member of the Flames. "I didn't see any reason why he wouldn't continue from last season. He's been playing really good. He gives us a chance every night. He's the most important part of the team."

Kiprusoff, the 116th player chosen in the 1995 draft, said he's aware of the questions surrounding his play. It, like everything else, doesn't seem to bother him.

"Last year's last year and now it's a new team, new tournament," Kiprusoff said after the team's Sunday workout in preparation for Tuesday's championship tilt with heavily-favored Canada. "I feel pretty confident. In this tournament I've been playing all the games. I think that's good for me, I really enjoy to play a lot. I hear about those things. If you're a goalie you always hear something like that. I didn't worry too much about those things."

The Finns have advanced to their first-ever World Cup of Hockey/Canada Cup championship largely due to Kiprusoff's continued excellence and a stingy team defense that has surrendered just six goals in five games. The Finns have given up just 116 shots as Kiprusoff has compiled a GAA of 1.18, a mark that includes back-to-back shutouts, a first in the history of the tournament.

The 27-year-old will once again have to be stellar if the underdogs from Finland hope to pull off the biggest hockey victory in its nation's history.

"It's surprising how well, if you play well, like he did in last year, end of the year, how this thing is continuing and that's a great thing," said head coach Raimo Summanen. "You see his confidence. Every move what he's doing there is so much confidence behind that."

Kiprusoff's play is one thing. But it is his personality, his demeanor that seems to define or reflect the character of this scrappy, anonymous hockey team.

Take Kiprusoff's photo in both the Finnish media guide and the one put out by the World Cup of Hockey. Both suggest someone who is, well, slightly deranged or recently incarcerated. Think post office wall.

Lydman, who has played with Kiprusoff since 1996 as a junior, hesitates when asked to describe the scruffy goaltender's personality.

"Yeah, it's a bit different. Pretty easy-going guy. No worries," Lydman said.

"Crazy, weird sense of humor," he added.

Forward Ville Nieminen merely shakes his head in resignation.

"You don't know that guy. Nobody knows that guy," Nieminen deadpanned. "That guy's a myth, mystery. So, we don't know.

"His humor's almost funny. Not quite but almost. Sarcastic humor."

Sort of out there?

"I don't know where, but somewhere," he added. "Own program. Different program."

Kiprusoff seems nonplussed when told of this assessment of his character.

"I'm a quiet guy," he said. "But don't listen to Nieminen. He's the weirdest guy I ever met. Whatever he says, I laugh at his jokes, though. He's talking all the time so sometimes something funny must come out too."

This happy, almost giddy quality that seems to permeate the Finnish dressing room belies an undercurrent of resolve. Head coach Summanen walked into the Air Canada Centre Sunday afternoon and announced the time for dreaming is over.

"Now I have to wake up because game is coming," the cheerful Summanen said. "Now, these two days, we have time, we have to prepare ourselves. We have to be hungry when the game starts otherwise we can't win the game."

Former Vancouver Canucks general manager and now Canadian broadcasting analyst Brian Burke told a television panel Sunday morning that wherever the Finns go in international play, at any level, they are always among the most popular teams.

"Because they work like dogs," Burke explained.

It has been that way throughout this tournament.

To a man, the Finns insist they are not simply happy to be here, despite the fact their 2-1 victory over the hometown Americans in Minneapolis on Friday night was seen as a seminal moment in Finnish hockey.

"If your goal was just to reach the playoffs then you have to set new goals. That's what we've been doing in this tournament," Lydman said. "It's a championship. I don't think that any team or any player can be satisfied. No matter what kind of underdog you are."

Summanen admitted he spent much of the day after the victory over the United States wondering how his team might be able to re-establish its focus after such an unprecedented win.

"That's the biggest thing, you know. We respect Canadian hockey a lot and the team is great. But the bigger thing is that we have to be hungry. We can do something about that," he said. "There's two days time. But mentally, if we feel that, you know, we already did our thing, and then it's destroy our team."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.