4 Nations Cup Preview: Finland looking to win the right game

Goaltender Noora Räty of Finland defends her net at the 2017 IIHF Women's World Championship. (Michelle Jay)

Goaltender Noora Räty played a huge role in one of Finland’s biggest wins in women’s hockey history, stopping 58 shots to defeat Team USA at the 2013 4 Nations Cup and advance to the gold medal game. The Finns will try and get back there again at the 2018 4 Nations Cup in Saskatoon. (Michelle Jay)

Back in 2017, Finland earned a historic win, beating Team Canada at the IIHF Women’s World Championship for the first time in 21 tries. It was a sign of how far Finland’s women’s hockey program has come; they’d proven to be a consistently tough out for both North American squads, and now they’d gotten a favorable result at a major tournament.

The problem? That win didn’t come in the right game.

The Finns upended the Canadians in the preliminary round in 2017, not in a semifinal game, so as important as the result was, it didn’t give them a highly sought-after berth in a gold medal game. For Team Finland, who since 1998 has played in the bronze medal game of the Olympics and World Championships all but once, grabbing a top-two spot on the podium has been much anticipated.

But although they haven’t been able to make a gold medal game in those tournaments, the squad has fared better at the 4 Nations Cup. In 2013, Finland won a silver medal after shocking Team USA with a 3-1 win in the last game of the round robin, advancing to the championship game. Based on their performances of the last few years, they’re plenty capable of getting there again in Saskatoon.

“We are getting better and better; [the United States and Canada] can’t play easily against us,” head coach Pasi Mustonen said. “We know we can win against them; we know if we play 10 games, they are better, but we don’t care. We want to win that separate game, the right night.”

They’ve typically relied on stellar goaltending to keep them in games against the North American teams, but the Finns have all-world talent at both skater positions as well, and they’re able to skate with the Canadians and Americans over the course of an entire game more and more frequently. When they beat Canada in 2017, for instance, they traded goals three different times before snapping a 3-3 tie late in the third period to win. At the 2018 Olympics, Finland played Team USA to a one-goal game until there was about 13 seconds left in the Group A opener, when the Americans scored an empty-net goal to seal the victory.

Mustonen says the team’s confidence has grown over time, and that’s been the biggest difference-maker when they’ve played (and won) those close games against the U.S. and Canada.

“It’s the self-confidence and our players…are getting better and better trained all the time. And the North Americans know it also,” he said. “Now we have the players who really believe they can beat them every night. Even though we haven’t done it that often, the feeling’s there anyway.”

The sheer amount of women playing hockey in the United States and Canada is much greater than in Finland. The IIHF’s survey of players reports that in 2017-18, there were about 5,800 female players in Finland, compared to almost 89,000 in Canada and nearly 80,000 in the United States. So the Finns have had to find ways to get ahead and do other things well, since the talent pool they’re drawing from is minuscule in comparison.

“[The North American teams] should be totally superior to every single country, but they aren’t. There is something we are doing well,” Mustonen said. “We don’t have the same resources the North Americans have, so we have to do some things better than they do. And that is a goal and that’s an issue we’re working with; where can we be the best in the world? One of the parts is definitely coaching and the way we practice.”

Growing the women’s game at home in Finland is a focus for enabling future success, too. Mustonen said that that’s a huge goal for the Finnish ice hockey federation, and they want to double the number of girls playing hockey in four or five years’ time.

For now, Finland is focused on having a strong showing at the 4 Nations Cup, as a new Olympic cycle gets going.

“It’s naturally the toughest tournament together with the Worlds or the Olympic Games, most of all based on where we play and on what conditions we play,” Mustonen said. “So we play the Canadians and Americans in front of their crowds and with their conditions, with their refs and with the smaller ice rink. So it’s a tough place, and an interesting place to take a look at our players, and which ones can manage the speed of the game.”

Playing with more speed, and showcasing stronger skating abilities throughout the entire line-up, are areas where he feels his team can still improve in order to take that next step forward.

“For us, we already play very well defensively. I think we have the best discipline of all of the teams as far as the defensive game is concerned,” Mustonen said. “But one thing is sure, we have to be able to skate as much as they are, and we are looking for stronger and stronger skaters, and bringing them into the team. It takes time, but we have to be able to play and have the same speed as the North Americans, and every single one of our players has to be able to do that. So definitely, it’s the focus area.”

Forward Michelle Karvinen and defender Jenni Hiirikoski, both among the world’s very best at their positions, should lead the way in Saskatoon for the Finns. Noora Räty has proven over and over again that she’s one of the best goaltenders of all time, too; she’s joined in net by Eveliina Suonpää and Jenna Silvonen for this tournament. Forward Petra Nieminen and D Ronja Savolainen are a bit younger, but they’ve already proven to be top players for Finland and could play a huge role, especially if they perform well against the U.S. and Canada.

Another player to watch is Emma Nuutinen, the lone NCAA player on the Finns’ roster. Nuutinen is a junior at Mercyhurst University; last season, she helped lead the Lakers to the CHA conference championship with an MVP performance, and she’s so far picked up right where she left off with 11 points in 10 games this season. She’ll head to the 4 Nations Cup after scoring a hat trick, including an overtime game-winner, in her last outing with Mercyhurst.

This is a particularly big year for Team Finland, who is hosting the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Espoo. Looking ahead to that tournament, Mustonen has the same mindset for his team: just win the right game and get the chance to play for a gold medal.

“We want to win the semifinal game naturally, so that’s the dream,” he said. “How realistic it is, it’s up to you to decide. But we feel we have the makings of surprising teams. We’ve shown it once [at] the Worlds and we can do it one more time. The question is only what night will that take place next time.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.