In the 1990's, Finland consistently iced the world's third-strongest women's national team behind Canada and the USA, but the new millennium hasn't been as kind to this Scandinavian country with 2,350 registered female players. Sure, the Finns picked up bronze medals at the 20 IIHF World Women's Championships. But otherwise, they've shown an unfortunate knack for coming up empty at key moments, whether you're talking about a 2-1 bronze medal game loss to the underdog Russians in 2001, or blowing a 2-1 lead and falling 5-2 to archrival Sweden in the 2005 battle for third place. The last two Olympics have been arguably even more painful, as Finland lost 2-1 to Tre Kronor in 2002's bronze medal game (in a year where the Swedish Olympic Committee actually considered not sending a team at all due to its perceived weakness), and had the misfortune to face a superior and motivated American squad last year in a 4-0 bronze defeat in Turin, after the USA had shockingly succumbed to Sweden in the semi-finals. Is this all irrelevant, ancient history? Finnish fans would undoubtedly like to think so. But the collapses of yesteryear have a tendency to linger in the Finnish sporting psyche, and the 2007 team that's come to Winnipeg will need to be mentally tougher than its predecessors to get back on the medal podium.
Coaching: Hannu Saintula has guided the Finnish national team at every IIHF tournament since 2004, plus the 2000 World Championship. The 49-year-old is a natural fit for this position as the longtime head coach of his hometown Espoo Blues, which captured seven straight Finnish women's titles between 19 and regained their crown this year against Karpat Oulu. Saintula is reputed to be a good communicator and teacher. Now it's time to find out whether he, in consultation with general manager Arto Sieppi, has made the right player selections to revitalize his roster. Saintula's assistant is Jussi Melkko.
Goal: Finland returns with the same goaltending duo that appeared in Turin, 17-year-old Noora Raty from Espoo and 23-year-old Maija Hassinen of Ilves Tampere. Raty, who debuted in international play at the tender age of 15, could be poised to assume the starter's role after winning the Finnish title this year. But it's more likely that the high school student will split duties with Hassinen, the 2005 Finnish League rookie of the year, as was the case at the Olympics. Both will need to perform better in crunch situations at this tournament: Hassinen was pulled in favor of Raty in the semi-finals versus Canada, and vice-versa against the USA in the bronze medal game.
Defence: This is a competent puck-moving group, although there isn't anyone whose offensive prowess will be confused with that of the USA's Angela Ruggiero or Sweden's Gunilla Andersson. Emma Laaksonen, Espoo's captain and a former All-American at Ohio State, will be expected to provide leadership for this mostly early 20's group, along with 32-year-old Kati Kovalainen. Two-time Olympian Saija Sirviö is another name to watch.
Forward: At this stage of women's hockey history, scoring 10 goals in five games won't take you far when teams like Canada and the Americans are filling the net. However, that was Finland's offensive output in Turin. If there's to be a turn-around, it must be led by speedy forward Karoliina Rantamaki. The three-time Olympian ran away with the scoring title this season in Finland, notching 28 goals and 51 points. However, she has never posted more than six points in any single IIHF tournament (and that was back in 1999). Two US college players, Mari Pehkonen and Saara Tuominen, played on Rantamaki's line at the Olympics. Add veteran Katja Riipi to the mix, and you're looking at a snapshot of the Finnish offense. A major missing face is Sari Fisk, the former Olympic team captain who shares the record for most games played all-time at IIHF tournaments with Canada's Danielle Goyette (56). The 35-year-old had just seven points in 10 games with Espoo this season.
Projected Results: With five first-time World Championship participants on the roster, Finland must hope that an infusion of fresh energy will bring bronze or better. But this is still not a team that compares to the glory days of Riikka Nieminen and Tia Reima. The Finns are unlikely to upset Canada or the USA for the first time, and they will need to be at their very best to outwork the Swedes for (in all likelihood) bronze.
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