First, the good news. Finland overcame a shaky start to defeat Austria 8-4 in their men's Olympic hockey opener, which matters to Canadians because both teams are in Group B and will play the favoured Canadians over the next 72 hours.
Maybe the best news to filter out post-game was that an apparent neck injury suffered by the Finnish team captain Teemu Selanne in the first period is not considered serious. Selanne was getting his neck iced on the bench and didn’t return for the start of the second period. According to both goaltender Tuukka Rask and forward Jussi Jokinen, it was done for precautionary reasons and Selanne will be ready to play, likely for their second game of the tournament, Friday against Norway.
“He’s a warrior,” said Jokinen. “I think he’ll be back for us.”
The Finns started their Olympic opener sluggishly, surrendering the first of three goals to Michael Grabner only 36 seconds into play against Rask, the Boston Bruins goaltender who received the start ahead of two other quality NHL goalies, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen.
Austria actually held a 2-1 lead at one point early in the first, but couldn’t hold on against the relentless Finnish attack. Centre Markus Granlund, moved up the depth chart to the first line as a result of injuries to Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu, had an excellent opening game with two goals and an assist and the Finns spread the offence around throughout their lineup.
Rask said he wasn’t all that worried about giving up an early goal because “we didn’t look frustrated. We just kept plugging away and until we finally got the goals and the lead. The first goal, everybody got caught sleeping there and it’s in the back of the net. It definitely look like we woke up after that first goal and didn’t let it bother us.”
Considering international hockey minnows Norway and Austria are in the same pool, it seems logical that Finland’s game against Canada on Sunday night will decide first place in the group. This was an uncharacteristic performance for a Finnish team that prides itself on strong defence and exceptional goaltending.
Instead, the game was a bit of a track meet on the big open ice, wildly entertaining at times, with lots of ebb and flow, and quality scoring chances. But for the Finns, a greater attention to defensive details will be needed if they plan to make any noise in the tournament.
“I guess you’re just building (chemistry) after each game and each win,” said Rask. “You try to be your best always the next game because it’s kind of a one-game tournament and you always focus on that one game only. You try to make sure that last game is the best one, but it’s not easy and you have to really pay attention.”
More than half the Finns play in the NHL, so readjusting to the larger international-sized ice is an issue for some of them as well, according to Jokinen.
“You play the last 10 years on the small ice, so you’re so used to that,” said Jokinen. “The first couple of practices, I was a little lost out there, but today I felt pretty good, a little bit better than I expected.
As for the Austrians, their next opponent is Canada on Friday night, another daunting task for a team that features just three NHLers.
“If you score four goals, you hope the game is a little bit tighter and closer,” said Grabner. “We gave them a lot of chances in the slot and too much time in the offensive zone. We’ve got to try and change that tomorrow (against Canada) and give them a little more low percentage shots from the outside – and not just let them come in and get shots from in close, where it’s tough for a goaltender to stop them.
“We came out good and played a solid first 10 minutes and they were starting to come but we weathered the storm a bit. It was 2-2, but they scored two late goals (in the first) and it’s always tough when you get scored on like that. Against a good team like Finland, it’s tough to come back.”