Third-period comeback sends U.S. out
By MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun
Finland forward Ville Nieminen (10) slams U.S. defenseman Aaron Miller, left, into the boards during the first period of a World Cup of Hockey semifinal in St. Paul, Minn., Friday, Sept. 10, 2004. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
They were chokers.
They never come back.
Finland, a perfectly livable little European country with five million of the hardiest hockey fans this side of Moose Jaw, had an inferiority complex.
"That was the thing about the Finnish team," said Saku Koivu, the splendid captain of the lads from Team Finland, who defeated Team USA 2-1 last night to advance to the final of the World Cup of Hockey.
"If they got a lead, they didn't hold it. If they got down two or three goals, they didn't come back."
Not any more.
In what is one of the biggest hockey victories in the country's history, Team Finland declared that they were no longer Europe's version of the Boston Red Sox.
They flew 10 hours from Europe on Monday. They played at what was 2 a.m. on the players' internal clocks.
They lost key defenceman Janne Niinimaa, who quit the team earlier in the tournament.
Then they gave up the first goal in their semi-final, winner take all-match against the United States. No team that surrendered the first goal has rebounded to win the game. They entered the third period still down 1-0.
They won by making the game virtually unwatchable in the first half of the contest while they waited for their legs to come around.
"We were tired but the longer it went, the better we felt," Koivu said.
They won by winning the battles close to the net, the area USA coach Ron Wilson smugly assumed his team would dominate.
They stilled an already snoozy home crowd.
They defended tenaciously, withstood a goofy elbowing penalty to Aki Berg with three minutes to play and garnered the winner with four minutes to go.
In doing so they became the first team in the tournament to win after surrendering the game's opening goal.
The grittier it got, the more boring and unwatchable, the more the Finns liked it.
The two teams cold only muster seven shots in the first period, four by the Finns.
The only real American surge in the second period produced a Finnish penalty to Jarrko Ruutu.
On the ensuing power play, Scott Gomez threaded a perfect pass to Doug Weight, who pushed his first goal of the tournament into the open net.
The Americans outshot Finland 7-3 in the second period.
A non-call that went against the Americans cost them early in the third period.
Brian Leetch was hauled down behind his own net before rimming the puck along the boards. A moment later, a rebound found the stick of Olli Jokinen, who put it past American goaltender Robert Esche.
But with four minutes left and Leetch trapped somewhere near Minneapolis, Teemu Selanne found Koivu open at the side of the Team USA net.
Really, really open.
"Yes, I was really, really surprised I had that much time." said Koivu, the heart-and-soul player for Team Finland.
The key to ending a hex, like everything, starts in goal. Miikka Kiprusoff is easily the best goalie Team Finland has brought along.
"I thought we had a better team in Nagano (at the 1998 Olympics) but our goaltending was just average," Selanne said. "You can't win with average goaltending."
"We did exactly what we wanted to do," Selanne said. "Every player did what he had to do. We found a way to score goals."
The hex is over. Finland is walking proud.
What does it say that Finland came back?
"It means" Koivu said, "that we don't quit."
Koivu, who is a cancer survivor who returned to play and star in the NHL, would know something on the subject of not quitting.