Since NHLers began Olympic participation in 1998, only one country has medaled three times.
It’s not Canada, it’s not the U.S., it’s not Sweden and it’s not Russia.
On Wednesday, the Finns made a push for a fourth, defeating Russia 3-1 to set up a semifinal date with arch rivals Sweden. In typical fashion, Finland beat the Russians with strengths exhibited in previous Olympics — strong goaltending, smart play and tireless work ethic.
“Even though no one ever picks us to win medals we always seem to find a way to get there,” Tuukka Rask said after the game, per Sportsnet.
Rask has been phenomenal over the last two contests, reminiscent of the performance Antero Niittymakki put up at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, when he backstopped the Finns to silver and won tournament MVP. Rask stopped 37 of 38 Russian shots on Wednesday, this coming after he made 25 saves in a 2-1 OT loss to Canada in the final group game.
“We gave it everything,” said a dismayed Pavel Datsyuk. “We can’t score today.”
Rask’s been a major part of Finland’s success, though hardly the only part. Mikael Granlund, the 21-year-old Minnesota center, has played extremely well and leads the team with five points. His effort against Russia — setting up Teemu Selanne’s game-winning goal, then scoring the insurance marker — was impressive, even more so considering Granlund was forced into a larger role after injuries befell the likes of Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov.
Granlund’s shown the type of resiliency that extended across the Finnish team. To steal some football parlance, the “next man up” philosophy rang true with the players — Jarko Immonen, one of the replacements for Koivu and Filppula, played nearly 15 minutes against the Russians on Wednesday, winning 55 percent of his draws. Petri Kontiola, a 29-year-old KHLer, won eight of nine faceoffs, registered an assist and played over 17 minutes, finishing plus-2.
It’s the kind of mentality assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen described prior to the Games getting underway.
“It’ll be all about team. That’s our strength and we love to be the underdog,” he explained. “We’re going to bite everybody’s ankles and not let go — that’s the only way we’re going to be successful.”
Despite that colorful explanation and its history of Olympic success, few picked Finland to medal in Sochi, and even fewer gave the Finns a shot after injuries hit.
No problem, according to Selanne.
“You know that nobody ever believed that we could win, but it doesn’t matter,” he said, per TSN 1050. The experts are wrong many times.”