Ah, those pesky Finns. Hard not to like these guys, right? On paper, before every Olympics, few people ever pick them as a serious threat. And yet, since the NHL entered the Olympics in 1998, Finland has two bronze and a silver medal out of those four Games, a side that always comes together as a team and finds a way to maximize what it has. They're usually a tough out. But the massive injury loss of their best player, Mikko Koivu, on the eve of the Olympics could be a blow they can't recover from. Or will it just be another challenge to overcome for the pesky Finns?
Five things to watch
1. Unable to recover in time from ankle surgery, the loss of Koivu is a massive, massive, massive obstacle. On a team already thin offensively, Koivu was easily going to be their monster man, their captain, playing in all situations. The Finns simply don't have the depth to truly replace him. It's a crushing blow. I would argue it's more meaningful in terms of team impact than Canada losing Steven Stamkos or Sweden losing Henrik Sedin. And it doesn't help that Valtteri Filppula of the Tampa Bay Lightning won't play in Sochi after suffering a non-displaced fractured ankle.
2. The Finns have the best goaltending in the tournament, and that's despite not having the injured Pekka Rinne on the team. Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen give Finland a dreamlike one-two-three punch in goal. Look for Rask to likely be the starter, and he gives Finland a fighting chance with the ability to steal a game.
3. The Finnish Flash is back for another Olympics. At 43, Teemu Selanne won't be expected to carry the team, obviously, but his presence in the dressing room alone means a lot. This will be his swan song wearing his country's colors, an emotional time, no doubt, for a player whose legend in Finland knows no boundaries.
4. Veterans Kimmo Timonen and Sami Salo and NHL rookie Olli Maatta headline a rather thin blue line, one which also includes KHLers Sami Lepisto and Juuso Hietanen as well as the likes of Ossi Vaananen (Jokerit, Finland) and Lasse Kukkonen (Karpat Oulu, Finland). Not a very imposing group overall.
5. Without Koivu, the Finns are going to have to dig deep and become even more blue collar than normal, and that's saying something. Because that's already their international calling card. This is a team that's going to come at you in lunch-bucket waves with the likes of Tuomo Ruutu">Tuomu Ruutu, Lauri Korpikoski and Leo Komarov et al. Sure, there's still some offense here led by Aleksander Barkov, Mikael Granlund, Jussi Jokinen and old man Selanne, but success will be defined by grinding out 1-0 and 2-1 wins.
With Mikko Koivu out, Granlund will be handed a bigger offensive role on a team craving offense. He's played really well over the past two months in the NHL, growing his game offensively, and now he'll be counted on by his mother country.
You hate to count out the Finns, because they always find a way to prove you wrong. I'll admit it, I'm a closet Finland fan. But I just can't see them overcoming the loss of Koivu. No medal this year.