Five reasons Finns could beat U.S.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Why is it Finland feels like the underdog even when it really isn't?
Technically speaking, the Finns are slotted one spot ahead of the United States in the International Ice Hockey Federation world rankings, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in these parts who sees Team USA as anything but the favorite for Friday's semifinal.
Well, here are five reasons Finland could possibly beat the United States:
1. We are family: Every four years, Teemu Selanne gets the band back together again. You know, just like John, Paul, George and Ringo, you've got Teemu, Saku, Jere and Kimmo and the rest of the gang at it again in these Olympics. The Finns are a tight-knit group, and their veteran core, led by Selanne, Koivu, Lehtinen and Timonen, has played two decades' worth of international hockey together.
Most countries hope to come together in time with new faces getting accustomed to each other, but the Finns arrive at the Olympics and it's like riding a bike. Don't underestimate the value of that.
"There's a lot of guys that we all know each other from before; we're a small country," Selanne said Thursday after practice. "I think that helps. Right away, when we got here, it had felt like we had been together all year. It helps, for sure."
When the boys get back together, they all take their proper place. No egos need to be stroked; there aren't enough high-end superstars on this squad to even bother with that. Once again, it's a good mix of offensive, defensive and physical players.
"Well, I really believe that we don't have the problems with our roles," said Selanne, the all-time points leader in Olympic hockey history. "We accept our role. We have never had a problem of having four first lines who all need to play 20 minutes a game. Whatever role you get on our team, you just do it. Whatever it takes."
2. Always in the mix: You'll never see Finland in anyone's predictions for a medal since the NHL started sending players to the Olympics 12 years ago, yet look at what the Finns achieve every time out. At the 1998 Nagano Games, they beat Canada for bronze; in 2002 at Salt Lake City, they lost a very close 2-1 quarterfinal game to eventual gold-medal winner Canada; and at Torino in 2006, they settled for silver after losing to rival Sweden in the final.
"Well, we've got a lot of good hockey players, I think we've proved that in the past years," said Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu. "We know we have to play good as a team, as a five-man unit, and obviously goaltending has always been good for us. In a tournament like this when it's a best-of-one, that's a big help. Those are probably the reasons."
Selanne believes his team succeeds thanks to the format of these Olympic tournaments.
"We know we can't compete with the top teams in a best-of-seven series," Selanne said. "But one game? I think we can challenge everybody. That's our mindset."
3. The Kipper factor: We've spent lots of time telling you Team USA has arguably the best goalie in the tournament in Ryan Miller. Well, Finland's Miikka Kiprusoff doesn't take much of a backseat to him.
"I can't worry too much about who's at the other end," the Calgary Flames netminder said Thursday. "[Tomas] Vokoun yesterday [in the quarterfinals against the Czechs], he's one of the top guys in the NHL. Miller is probably the hottest goalie in the NHL. I play against them every night, every year, so I'm used to it."
Four years ago, Kipper skipped Torino, citing a hip issue, although he never missed a game for Calgary because of it. That rubbed a few of his Finnish teammates the wrong way. But now that's all water under the Lions Gate Bridge here.
"I wasn't upset, but I was disappointed because I really believe that we need everybody," Selanne said about Kipper's Torino snub. "We don't have same depth as Canada or somebody else has. Although in saying that, if you look at the goalies we have in the league right now, it's unbelievable. So we have the depth there. But obviously Kipper is the No. 1 guy and we need him. So far, he has been phenomenal."
Kiprusoff, who leads the tournament with a .947 save percentage, is coming off a 31-save shutout of Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias and the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. Watch out, he's in the zone.
4. The power play: The Finns have the third-best power play in the tournament, buzzing along at a 31.8 percent clip. (The U.S. is fifth at 25 percent). That's a dangerous weapon in a close game.
Having said that, Finland has gone 1-for-13 over the past two games against quality competition (the Swedes and the Czech).
"I'm very disappointed how we played the last two games [on the power play]," Selanne said. "We could have put both games away on the power play, and we couldn't do it. That's the one thing you have to do well if you want to win here. Teams like the U.S. and Canada, the chances, when you get them, you have to take advantage of them."
5. Let's get physical: The Finns are the most physical team of any of the European hockey nations. They're a gritty bunch who don't mind the rough stuff whatsoever. They won't back down one bit from an equally physical U.S. team.
"It's part of the game, and obviously you have to be smart," Mikko Koivu said. "The further you go in the tournament, it's going to get more physical. We're fine with that. I think Finnish hockey is a little bit about that [physical play]. It gets you in the game, and it makes it more fun."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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