There's no place like home
There's no place like home
Finland's team spirit sets the tone
Finland's close-knit roster has a sprinkling of players from the NHL, KHL and the Finnish League - yet unlike other teams it has had little difficulty gelling as a single unit.
Alone among the semi-finalists the Finns have opted to draw on players from both sides of the Atlantic; Sweden's roster has a lone local, Skelleftea's Jimmie Ericsson, while Canada and the USA rely exclusively on NHL talent.
Russia, the other prominent mix'n'match roster on view in Sochi struggled to form a cohesive whole throughout the tournament, so how have the Finns managed to march on?
According to forward Jori Lehtera, one of the roster's KHL contingent, it's all to do with the compact world of Finnish hockey. In a relatively small country players tend to grow up within the youth structures of local league teams and the cream of each generation quickly becomes familiar with one another on and off the ice.
"It's the Finnish style of play, everybody knows the system, so it is pretty easy to put guys in," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's the NHL or KHL or whatever."
That flexibility has been a boost to Finland in the run-up to this tournament as injuries forced changes to coach Erkka Westerlund's roster. A rush of replacements rocketed in from Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod and - up to now - the dearth of fit centres hasn't hampered Finnish scoring as much as was feared.
Fellow forward Tuomo Ruutu paid tribute to the homely atmosphere in the camp as well.
"We have good personnel," said the Carolina Hurricanes frontman. "It's a funny thing when you come in here. Maybe you haven't seen some of the guys for a couple of years, maybe there are new faces, but it feels like you just talked to them yesterday.Continue reading
"We're a tight group, not just the players, but the whole management - coaches, officials and everybody like that. And that's the bottom line. You have to be like that if you want to go all the way."
Lehtera, currently a popular figure at Sibir Novosibirsk, was reluctant to attribute the team's success over the Russians to any additional experience gleaned from playing KHL hockey but displays a deadpan sense of humour that many in Siberia would quickly relate to. Asked about Russia's goaltending against Finland he batted back: "We're just good at scoring goals". In a similar vein his plans to curb the free-scoring Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson are stark: "I'll tell him to stop."
That kind of simplicity has underpinned Finland's progress in this competition. The team has adopted a no-frills approach, congesting the centre of the ice, defending doggedly and hitting on the counter-attack with the wiles of veteran Teemu Selanne and the pace of youthful Mikael Granlund supplying the firepower.
But even if the plan won't much change against Sweden, the intensity will go up another notch as these Nordic neighbours stage a repeat of the 2006 Olympic final.
Sweden's victory on that occasion was a bitter pill for Finnish fans to swallow given the constant rivalry between the two countries, but for the youngest member of Finland's roster another game sticks out even more painfully.
D-man Olli Maatta, a 19-year-old revelation in the NHL and international play, was just eight years old when he settled down to watch the nations play the 2003 World Championship quarter-final. But childish glee as Finland raced into a 5-1 lead on home ice turned into heartbreak when the Swedes battled back for an unlikely 6-5 success and an eventual silver medal behind Canada.
"That was one of the worst things I've seen," admitted the youngster. Seeing Finland get revenge in 2011 Worlds on the way to a gold medal in Bratislava went some way to exorcising that childhood trauma, but now he has a chance to strike his own personal blow against the Tre Kronor.
"Against Sweden it's always a big game and it being a semi-final makes it even bigger," he said. "Everybody wants to play these games. A lot of players didn't make it here, but we are here and we're going to try to enjoy it."
With coach Westerlund downplaying any sense of irritation after his Swedish counterpart Per Marts tipped Russia to win Wednesday's quarter-final, it's been left to the players to ramp up the atmosphere before the big game.
Even though the win against Russia was a big event - especially deep in enemy territory in front of a passionate Sochi crowd - Lehtara remains confident that a clash with Sweden will be bigger still.
"It's always a big game, Finland against Sweden. Every year it's like the biggest game for us," he said. "It doesn't matter where you play, if you play against Sweden, you're always pumped up.
"It's like 50-50 this time, because the Olympics were here in Russia and they have good stars, but Sweden is always Sweden.
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