MINSK, Belarus – In winning its group at the world hockey championship, Team Canada beat goaltenders Jan Laco, Jakub Kovar, Patrick Galbraith, Daniel Bellissimo, Anders Nilsson and Steffen Soberg.
None of them are Finland’s Pekka Rinne, who stands as Canada’s biggest challenge in Thursday’s quarter-final round. Even while a young Finnish team has struggled with penalties, turnovers and a lack of offensive depth, Rinne has been a rock with a 1.65 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and two shutouts.
“Pekka is our most important player—absolutely,” coach Erkka Westerlund said Wednesday. “We built our whole system so that goalkeeping is No. 1, and then we try to build the strength (of) defence in front of him. That’s how it is, (how) hockey works.”
Westerlund said he was not yet satisfied with his team’s defensive play but expects improvement. Even if that doesn’t happen, Finland has a good chance in Canada if for no other reason than Rinne.
Fortunately for the Finns, Rinne is not experiencing any injury problems after missing four months of the Nashville Predators’ season with a hip infection. Naturally, it took a while for him to get back to feeling right.
“It’s a process, and I think even when I came here (to Minsk) I thought that hopefully I can improve all the time and I didn’t maybe feel 100 per cent,” Rinne said. “But now I do, and I’m really happy and I feel like my game has been getting better and (I’m) just feeling more comfortable.”
Rinne is playing with confidence and instilling it in his teammates, only six of whom are back from the Sochi Olympics, where Finland won a bronze medal. Tuukka Rask and Kari Lehtonen were the goalies then, but as former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Leo Komarov pointed out, the best thing about his country is knowing there will always be great goaltending.
Still, this isn’t the Olympics.
“It’s a different roster, it’s a different tournament,” said Komarov, who repeated his desire to return to the NHL last season. “It’s a new day, a new life.”
But the same, old, reliable Rinne.
Canadian defenceman Ryan Ellis knows all about that from parts of three seasons as a Predators teammate of Rinne’s. Unlike a lot of other goaltenders, Ellis said Rinne doesn’t let game action detract from his practices.
“Every day, every practice it’s like a game,” Ellis said. “He tries so hard in net in practice. I remember by first couple years there, I don’t think I scored him in the first 10 or 15 practices. And then every time I did, I was pretty impressed with myself, pretty happy.”
Ellis said Canada was less concerned with how they were going to score on Rinne and more worried about his puck-handling thwarting attack time.
“He’s active back there with the puck, so I think the biggest thing that we’re focused on is keeping the pucks away from him on dumps and stuff,” Ellis said. “He gets out to play them a lot. Getting them in the glass and try to get them out of his reach.”
That’s especially important to a Canadian team that tries to play a hard, North American style on the bigger, international ice surface. Canada has succeeded at holding on to the puck to create chances and through seven games has averaged 34 shots a game.
The strategy against Rinne is the same as many other elite goaltenders.
“We’re going to have to get pucks and traffic to the net,” Ellis said. “It’s tough for goalies when they get that kind of presence in front of him. We’ve got some big guys, so hopefully we can get those guys going.”
Whether that happens or Rinne keeps rolling will go a long way to determining whether Canada has a date with the United States or Czech Republic in Saturday’s semifinals. Westerlund said the Finns “don’t have pressure (because) we are underdogs.”
That’s true. But Rinne still displays big-game confidence.
“I’m feeling good and I’ve been enjoying hockey,” Rinne said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, when you’re just having fun and just letting it go. Just don’t think about anything, just play, and I feel like I’ve been doing that.”
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