The lionhearted Finns had their claws trimmed in the World Cup after a lot of success, but they’ll be better for it in the long run.
Regardless of what happens in its game against Russia Thursday night, the players from Finland in the World Cup of Hockey will almost certainly pack their bags, leave the tournament and head for NHL training camps. For Finland to even think of advancing, it would have to hope Sweden takes North America out to the woodshed Wednesday night, then itself lays a severe beating on Russia 24 hours later.
A goal differential of minus-5 will do that to you. But as disappointed as the Finns were after losing 2-0 to Sweden in a game it could very well have won if not for the heroics of Henrik Lundqvist, they can take some solace in the fact that better days are most definitely on the horizon.
The Finns have eight players, more than a third of their roster, who fall into the same age group as the Team North America 23-and-under crowd. As great as Finland has been on the international stage at the younger levels – gold in two of the past three World Junior Championships, silver in two of the three past World Championships and gold in this year’s Under-18 World Championship – it was probably too much to expect them to compete against the best players in the world. They will learn from this experience and be better to be sure, but learning difficult lessons always hurts.
“Maybe you just have to be on your game all the time,” said 18-year-old Patrik Laine when asked what the biggest lesson was that he learned from the World Cup. “You can’t have those sloppy shifts and you have to be quick all the time and play your best game all the time.”
That lesson was seared into Laine’s brain in the first game of the tournament when the Finns, perhaps a little overconfident with all the success it has been having on the world stage going back to its impressive bronze medal in Sochi, came out woefully ill prepared for their game against Team North America. They lost by a 4-1 count and were never in the game. It turned out to be the pivotal point in the tournament. Finland has one goal in two games in best-on-best play, which is sure to take the wind out of the high hopes it had coming into the tournament.
Truth be told, however, the Finns were far too young and inexperienced on the blueline to seriously compete in this tournament. If they were going to win, they had to get game-saving goaltending in the first game from Pekka Rinne and they didn’t. And they had to hope their young players could step up and make the same contributions in best-on-best that they have at other levels. They did not, although Laine gave it his best shot against Sweden.
But it’s hard not to get excited when you see a line of Aleksander Barkov between Laine and Sebastian Aho, or a 21-year-old Rasmus Ristolainen playing 24 minutes and 52 seconds. On defense, the Finns also have serviceable players in Dallas Stars prospects Julius Honka and Esa Lindell on the way, along with top prospects Jesse Puljujarvi and Colorado prospect Mikko Rantanen coming up the forward ranks.
Again, cold comfort, but consolation nonetheless.
“Our young players bring so much positive energy to the team and whole Finland ice hockey, and we have a good future forward,” said Finnish coach Lauri Marjamaki, who was making his debut as Finland’s national team coach at the age of 39. “But everybody understands that I am now so disappointed that I don’t want to say anything.”
The Finns are on the cusp of having some major salad days at the international level. There was a time when the Finns were left wanting on the world level because they were a collective that lacked the kind of talent it took to hang with the big boys. And even though their offense dried up at the World Cup, they have those elite players now. That’s because, like Sweden, they changed their development model to focus on individual skills. They hone the talents of the individual first, then build a team around them.
And it’s starting to show. “It’s a new generation,” said Teemu Selanne, the greatest Finnish player ever. “It’s the first time since my generation retired that we have some young, bright stars coming up. It was almost like we missed a generation in between.”