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  Team Finland Could Pose Threat to Sweden
by Gina Corallo, Correspondent

1998 Olympic Hockey will be the most exciting ever. The best players in the world will be representing their countries and going for the Gold. Of course we all think of LCS favorite Sweden, or maybe even Canada or the USA, grabbing that precious medal, however one team that could have a legitimate shot for the first time is Finland. In fact, Finland has never won an Olympic Gold medal. The closest they came was in 1994 in Lillehammer to catch the Bronze, and in 1988 at Calgary to win the Silver. Sweden, its archrival, is the defending World Champions, winning the gold in 1994. Finland would love to have a chance at that title. The question is - can they do it?

Offensive Punch
None other than Teemu Selanne will lead Team Finland. Selanne is having one of his best years in the NHL, being third in the league in scoring, and was MVP at the All-Star Game with a hat trick. He carried the Ducks on his shoulders in the absence of their captain Paul Kariya, as well as scoring goals at a rapid pace. He has explosive speed, great instincts, hard accurate shots, and is as a good playmaker as he is a finisher. Expect Selanne to be a leader for this team, and cause heartache for many goalies.

One of the best young players today, Saku Koivu makes things happen every time he touches the ice. His speed and playmaking abilities can burn any defensemen in their tracks. He scored 56 points in 50 games last season in Montreal, and is on another scoring rampage. Even though he lacks size, he will not be intimidated. He is a key offensive player, and will be looked upon with Selanne to lead his team with scoring.

Jari Kurri. This veteran player is one of the best defensive forwards in the league. Even though he is no longer a scoring sniper, do not underestimate his playmaking abilities. He is able to play center or wing, is used on both special teams, and his intelligence within the game makes him a great asset to any team. Being that Kurri will retire after this season, there is no doubt that he will want to go out with a medal, as well as another Stanley Cup.

There is no better agitator than Esa Tikkanen. He's best known for his grit, enthusiasm and scoring the big goals in big games which is what the Olympics is all about. He will go up against any player and get under anyone's skin no matter what size or height. Any coach would love to have a player like this on their team. He has the capabilities of taking any top player off his game. He always plays a tough style, is used on both special teams, and has one of the most powerful slap shots from the point that could stun any goalie. A major problem, however, is that he has been struggling with injuries and is still doubtful to play. If this is the case, Finland will lose a key player, not to mention depth which they already lack.

Winning the Bronze medal with Team Finland in the 1994 Olympics, Sami Kapanen knows what it takes to win. Leading The Hurricanes in scoring this year, Kapanen provides Finland with speed, strength, and intelligence. He is a small forward, but what he lacks in size he makes up in spirit.

Jere Lehtinen has improved within each of his three seasons in the NHL. He is a dependable forward and is becoming more and more of a complete player. A candidate for the Selke trophy last year, Lehtinen is a good all-around player who plays hard, is strong with the puck, is a good playmaker, and never gives up on the play. His offensive abilities are improving, partly due to playing with Mike Modano. He is a reliable player, and can be called upon for any situation.

Janne Niinimaa brings Finland what they need desperately - size. Niinimaa (6'2", 190) is a strong skater and excellent puckhandler. He is an offensive defenseman, who can jump into the play when it presents itself, and can make plays happen. Using his size to his advantage, Niinimaa will take the body, and will make a player pay the price if they try to become a threat. He plays with enthusiasm, grit, and intelligence. He is an elite player who will do what it takes to win. He is a key player if Finland has any chance of winning.

Jyrki Lumme provides Finland with an intelligent defense which leads to smart offensive plays. He quarterbacks a power play, having the ability to set the tone, and he is excellent on the penalty kill with excellent hand skills. He challenges the player at the blue line, in which he usually comes out the winner due to his range. Lumme is a finesse player. He doesn't throw body checks, but will take a hit and plays hard one-on-one.

Bringing added size and power to Finland is Teppo Numminen. He is a smart defensive all-around player who adds solidity to any hockey club. Numminen plays a physical game but not a mean one. He will do what it takes to win the battles of the puck, forechecks hard, is a strong asset on the penalty kill, and plays a smart passing game.

Janne Laukkanen will also be a key player for Finland. He played in the '94 games, and proved that he possesses great skating, physical, shooting and stickhandling skills. He is a smart player that can excel in all situations.

Goaltending a Problem?
This is where Finland lacks its talent and confidence. There are three goaltenders who are not of NHL caliber, but could prove to do very well. Jukka Tammi is a German netminder who has played for Finland in the 1988, 1992, and 1994 Olympics. Jarmo Myllys played for a short time in the NHL with Minnesota and San Jose, now plays for Sweden, and probably has the best experience. Ari Sulander, a Finnish goaltender recorded a league record of 10 shutouts. We will see if these goaltenders can handle the overload of NHL superstars. The team will have to have the utmost confidence in these goaltenders in order for them to play to their full potential.

Team Finland can put up a great challenge to any team on a good day. Every player must step up and play to a higher level - especially the defense. Finland's defense has size and grit but will have to protect their smaller players from being pushed around, and they have the ability and players to do so in Aki Berg (LA), Niinimaa, and Tuomas Gronman (PIT). Their offense lacks depth and will be put to the test in keeping up with the scoring of the other top teams. With inexperienced goaltending and lack of size on offense, these players will be put to the test against the tournament's elite.

Do not underestimate this team however, they have a realistic shot at bringing home a medal and have the capability to cause an upset - especially against rival team Sweden. Because Sweden and Finland are in two separate Olympic groups, their first chance to meet would be in the semifinals. There's even a chance that they won't meet at all. But if they do, it'll be a war. And as history as proven, there's no war like a Finnish-Swedish war.

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