Since today’s Finland blog for Versus.com has yet to find its way to the site and face-off is less than an hour away, I figured I would post it here…
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Though the years have ticked by, the situation hasn’t changed much for Finland. It seems that things have gone just as they always do for the Finns in these international tournaments: fly under the radar, wrack up some wins and find themselves in position to play for a medal. They head into their match-up with the United States knowing it could be their biggest test of the tournament. It could also be one of the most entertaining games for all of us to watch.
First of all, the United States has yet to lose a game in the tourney and have quickly become the sweethearts of the ball. Especially considering the fact that many around the world didn’t give them a chance to win gold in these games. That all changed when they knocked off Canada in a preliminary match-up last week and clinched a bye into the quarterfinals. The victory dovetailed nicely with the anniversary of another big Olympic win, the 30th anniversary of the USA’s “Miracle on Ice” game in the 1980 Olympics. From then on you got a feel that they could be doing something special.
Finland, like the USA, wasn’t one of the favorites entering the tournament, though they probably should have been. They have bitten, clawed, and scratched their way to medals in each of the past two Olympics and brought a team to Vancouver that featured many of those same players. Their reputation is one of outworking opponents, playing sound defense and taking advantage of their opponents’ mistakes, which is exactly what we have seen from them in these games. Sure, they did stumble against their long time rivals from Sweden, but they seemed to have a case of the yips from the earliest moments of that game and never recovered. Under normal circumstances, they control the play and keep the score close before jumping ahead for the victory. The Sweden loss aside, they have only allowed one goal in the tournament.
One thing is certain heading into today’s game; it should be a low scoring affair. Statistically speaking, the game features the two best goaltenders remaining in the tourney.
Miikka Kiprusoff has posted an Olympics leading save percentage of .947 and a goals against average of 1.33, while the United States’ Ryan Miller has also been dynamite in posting a .944 save percentage and a 1.25 goals against average. Each player has gotten great defensive play from his team, but has also had to make some huge stops along the way.
Speaking of the defense, both teams have done a great job of limiting the opportunities against their goaltenders, clearing pucks and turning the play up ice. The two teams have gotten similar results, but have gotten them in different ways. The Finns went largely with veterans on their blue-line such as Kimmo Timonen, Sami Salo and Toni Lydman, while the Americans are seeing some youngsters get it done for them in the form of Jack Johnson, and Ryan Suter.
The Finnish centers will be key today, as they will have their hands full in facing two of the best face-off men in the tournament. Ryan Kesler has been winning an insane 78% of his draws and teammate Joe Pavelski has clicked at 67%. Those stats lead to their team possessing the puck for large stretches of time. Puck possession is key when playing the attacking style that the US has brought to these games and it has been vital to their success. Winning the face-off battle would go a long way towards pushing the Finns into the gold medal game.
The Finns have also got to get some five on five production if they want to advance. They have not scored an even strength goal in two games, having been shut out in their loss to Sweden and needing a power play and an empty netter to beat the Czechs on Wednesday night. Make no mistake, they could find a way to win with just special teams, but that would be a slippery slope.
Overall, this game will feature two hard working teams that will try to out-muscle the other, bone jarring hits, scrums in the corners and goal mouth, dirty goals and a low final score.
In the end, the Finns will advance to play for the gold on Sunday, knocking off a strong USA team by a 3-1 score that will be much closer than those numbers appear.