SOCHI, Russia – Even before the Olympic tournament began, before the under-looked and under-appreciated Fins would stun the entire nation of Russia, Olli Jokinen prescribed the formula that would get it done.
“I think we have the best goaltending out of all the other countries,” Jokinen said. “We play a good team game. Plus, we feel that at the end of the day it doesn't matter who puts the Finnish jersey on the team is going to play the same game anyways. For us it's not so much about the names on the back, it's about the good, solid team game and good goaltending.”
That was what it took to bring down Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and the home country at Bolshoy Ice Dome on Wednesday night: spectacular goaltending from Tuukka Rask, a few timely goals and continued adherence to a team game, despite injury losses that seemed too burdensome to overcome.
Ever the underdog, Finland has altered the face of these Games in Russia and reminded the hockey world, yet again, why only one country has medaled in three of the four Olympics involving NHL players.
“You know that nobody ever believed that we could win, but it doesn't matter,” said captain Teemu Selanne, who had a goal and an assist in the 3-1 upset over Russia. “The experts are wrong many times. We have to believe in our team.”
There was no Ovechkin on this team, no Malkin, not even the injured and more recognizable likes of Mikko and Saku Koivu, Valtteri Filppula, or even Aleksander Barkov, the second overall pick in last summer's NHL draft. For star power, it came down to Rask, who was terrific with 37 saves, and Selanne, playing in his final Olympics at age 43.
“We've got good team spirit and our style to play,” said Leo Komarov, who played in the NHL with the Maple Leafs last season.
The Finns, who won bronze in 1998 and 2010 and silver in 2006, were a determined and youthful bunch on this night, led, however, by the aging Selanne, the unsolvable Rask and 21-year-old Mikael Granlund, who set up Selanne's go-ahead goal and eventual game-winner before scoring the third and final marker himself.
“I think this is a great business card for Granlund to show how good he can be,” Selanne said of Granlund, who has 28 points in his second season with the Minnesota Wild.
In upsetting the Russians and holding Ovechkin and Malkin off the score-board entirely – the pair combined for two goals all tournament – Finland gets an opportunity to play in Friday's semi-final against Sweden with another medal chance close at hand.
Mindful of a rest advantage – Russia was playing for the fourth time in five days – Selanne believes a turning point for his country came in their final preliminary round match against Canada during which they lost 2-1 in overtime, hanging around despite an overwhelming talent disparity.
“My young teammates, when they realized that they can compete against the best players in the world it felt great,” said Selanne, who played in his first Olympics in 1992. “I don't know how many people saw that, [but] I saw it very [closely]. I was very proud of those guys. I think that's the carryover from that game. It's a good feeling when you realize that you can compete against the best.”
Yet again it was a sum of parts defeating what was ultimately an incredibly talented and yet flawed Russian squad, one that buckled under the strain of a country's worth of pressure. They fell in the quarterfinals for the second straight Olympics.
“It sucks,” said Ovechkin, who had just a single goal all tournament, held to three shots by Finland and singled out by his head coach afterward.
Rask was there all night to turn aside whatever Ovechkin and the Russians could muster. The 26-year-old got stronger as the game wore on, stopping all 27 shots in the final 40 minutes, including one on Alexander Radulov in the waning moments of victory.
“Tuukka?” said Komarov with a grin. “He's okay.”
And ultimately it was Rask, who summed up the under-looked and under-appreciated Finns.
“Even though nobody ever picks us to win medals,” he said, “we always seem to find a way to get there and win one.”