<
>

Finland's formula is yielding results

SOCHI, Russia -- Finnish forward Tuomo Ruutu paused in the crowded mixed zone Wednesday afternoon to ponder a question about his team being the underdog yet again.

It's not as if the veteran hasn't heard the term in relation to his countrymen in places like this many times in his career.

Still, if it's something that defines the Finns from the outside, a comfortable cloak in which to wrap the hardy hockey nation when the world's best gather every four years, it's not something the Finns themselves have spent a lot of time considering from the inside, even on a day such as today, when they came into the Bolshoy Ice Dome and drove a stake through the heart of the host Russians' gold-medal dreams with a deadly-efficient 3-1 victory.

"I don't know. I don't know," Ruutu said. "People always say we're underdogs and we don't really care if we're underdogs or favorites. We play the same way. It doesn't matter who we play against. We try and play better every game and I think we've improved in every game this tournament and I think we have to improve next game too."

The next game for Finland is Friday in the Olympic semifinals against longtime sporting rival Sweden. It was Sweden coach Par Marts who twice predicted after Sweden's earlier 5-0 victory over Slovenia that he thought Russia would beat the Finns. Who can blame him?

He only saw what we see: A Finnish team that had been banged-up up talent-wise since before the tournament started. A team whose best hope against a talented-if-puzzling team such as Russia seemed to be playing some rope-a-dope and hoping for a late power-play offering, or something like that.

We'd seen the Finns play that way against Canada in the final preliminary game, taking only 15 shots on goal but tying the score on a Ruutu deflection before losing in overtime. The thinking for many was that a similar outcome awaited Finland on Wednesday. Play hard and then go home with their heads held high.

Uh, not exactly.

Just as in the Canada game, the Finns fell behind Russia 1-0 on a wicked Ilya Kovalchuk drive on the power play, but the Finns bounced right back and tied it less than two minutes later on a great move by Juhamatti Aaltonen, who tucked one under the arm of Russian netminder Semyon Varlamov.

Before the end of the first, Teemu Selanne took a pass from Mikael Granlund, the Finns' most dangerous player in this tournament, and slid it past Varlamov after Granlund had sped by L.A. Kings defenseman Slava Voynov. Suddenly, it was 2-1 in favor of Finland.

Then, before the second period was six minutes old, the Finns' lead grew to 3-1 as Granlund found the rebound of a Selanne effort and popped it past Varlamov on the power play. A little over a minute later, Varlamov was done -- pulled from the game -- and so, too, were the Russians.

It didn't matter that Finland managed only 22 shots on goal to the Russians' 38. And it won't matter Friday if the shot differential against a more-talented Swedish team is the same. See, it's not really about being the underdog, but being comfortable in your own skin as a team. Call it an identity, if you like.

As far as the Finns are concerned you can call it whatever you like as long as they get to put on their skates a couple of more times in this tournament.

"I think that's the only way we can succeed. I think that's the only way any team can succeed in this tournament. There are a lot of good individuals on every team but who plays the best team game eventually will win," said Ruutu, who has played in 10 major international tournaments for Finland and won a medal in all of them.

"Obviously, it's not pretty always but we don't have all the star power, that's always been our strength, that team defense and the way we can play as a team, it's no individual, it's just a team," added Jussi Jokinen, another veteran who has seen many an international game wearing Finland's colors.

It's not just that the Finns try harder, although that is a factor in their success.

Take Granlund, who has had an MVP-caliber tournament. Without Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu (who stayed home with injuries) and with the loss early in the tournament of top rookie Aleksander Barkov, the challenge has been to find enough offense in the lineup to have the kind of game the Finns did against Russia.

For every star that inexplicably burns more dimly at the Olympics -- Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, for example -- there is a bright young light such as Granlund, who now leads the Finns in goals (three) and points (five) through four games.

"Great player. We know when the going gets tough he just elevates his game and he can makes those plays. Today obviously his first assist, unbelievable winning that battle and then making a nice pass to Teemu," Ruutu said. "Usually when Teemu gets the puck in that spot he buries it. And the second one too. He found that rebound and scored. Our offensive guys were there when we needed it."

"I've been very lucky to play with some great players, and Granlund is a perfect example. When you get open, the puck is coming. It is fun to watch when this young kid is so ready at this early age," Selanne said. "This is Granlund's business card for the world. He's hungry. He can't wait to get out there."

As for his own thoughts, the Finnish legend was a little introspective.

"During the day when I woke and even before I went to bed last night, I noticed that this might be my last game in the Finnish national team. It was kind of a weird feeling. That was my focus, that you know what, if I do my best and my teammates can only do their best. Nobody really believes in us. They played four games in five nights and we tried to make that our advantage. I think that's what happened. It's a big day for us," Selanne said.

And, of course, if this is your identity you can only sustain things if you have goaltenders who thrive in closely fought, close-to-the-vest games. Someone like, say, Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who calmly turned aside every Russian venture.

"We're confident. A lot of guys know each other and even though nobody ever picks us to win medals, we always seem to find a way to get there and win one. Guys trust each other and know the system well. That's about it," Rask said.

If this was a one-off thing, something that had come out of the blue, it might seem remarkable. But this is simply who the Finns are.

They beat Canada for the bronze medal in 1998, the first Olympic tournament in which NHL players competed. They were shut out in 2002, but took home silver after a loss to the Swedes in 2006, then won bronze four years ago against Slovakia.

In fact, Finland has five medals in the past seven Olympic tournaments and is now two wins away from its first-ever gold.

"Every time we go into tournaments like this we're disrespected. But the good thing for our country no matter what names are on the back, Finland's going to play the same way no matter who we have here," veteran Olli Jokinen said. "We could have 20 different guys here and the results would be the same. Finland's going to play Finland's way."

"This is an honor to play for the country. Moments like this you're never going to get back. As you get older you realize that chances like this don't happen often. It's a big thing for our country to be in the top four but we're not satisfied. We're not just happy to be part of the medal round. We need to energize ourselves and get ready for the next game," the Winnipeg Jets center said.

As for the idea that the coach of the team they're about to face in the semifinals picked them to lose? Well, let's just say that playing against Sweden is in some way its own reward for the Finns.

"Obviously, we'll take the extra motivation we can get. Sweden and Finland, Olympic semifinal, I think we'll be ready to go either way," Jussi Jokinen said with a smile.