Team Finland came into the 2017-2018 season facing some lofty expectations that they haven’t completely lived up to. Discipline issues, in the form of excessive penalties, have plagued the team. They finished second at the Pre-Olympic Cup on home ice in December, a tournament that featured the Finns’ second loss to arch-rival Sweden since early 2016. The Four Nations Cup bronze medal match had to be won in overtime.
Despite the setbacks, this is not a team to be underestimated. Finland comes to the Winter Games ranked third by the IIHF, with two Olympic bronze medals and two World Championship bronze medals since 2014 including at the most recent tournament last April. There’s plenty of leadership to be found from the four players who captain their club teams, including 44-year-old living legend Riikka Välilä of HV71 in the SDHL.
The Finns have proven they can skate with the likes of the United States and Canada. They won’t go down quietly.
Veteran experience at all positions, hungry newcomers, speed, size, skill, and some truly scary goaltending are a formidable obstacle for the rest of Group A.
Jenni Hiirikoski, Defender
The longtime Naisleijonat captain is the best defender in the women’s game, period. She’s in her second year with the SDHL’s Luleå HF where she’s not only a gifted playmaker but also a gifted scorer: she leads the SDHL in defender scoring with 47 points, is second among all players for assists, and is the only defender in the league’s top 20 for goals. She makes her third Olympic appearance with a record six Best Defender awards at the IIHF Women’s World Championships.
Linda Välimäki, Forward
Since returning to Ilves Tampere after seven years in Espoo, Välimäki’s scoring dominance has only continued. She recently tied the great Marianne Ihalainen in Naisten Liiga (formerly the Naisten SM-Sarja) career goals and hasn’t scored less than 60 points in a season since 2012.
Noora Räty & Meeri Räisänen, Goaltenders
Räty needs no introduction; this is her fourth Olympics and she is, undoubtedly, at the top of her game. The only question will be how she fares after yet more international travel after a season spent globetrotting with the CWHL’s Kunlun Red Star.
Räisänen made a triumphant return to women’s hockey this season after time spent in the men’s leagues. In 21 games with HPK Hämeenlinna she has a .936 save percentage, which becomes more impressive when HPK’s youth (the average player age is 19 years, 6 months) and relative inexperience are factored in.
Petra Nieminen, Forward
The youngest member of the Naisleijonat at 18 years old, Nieminen is here for a reason. She’s still developing in the Naisten Liiga with Team Kuortane, but she’s a talented scorer who will benefit from this international experience.
Eveliina Suonpää, Goaltender
Suonpää is the youngest of the netminding trio at 22 years old, but this is already her second Olympics. Her club performance with Rauman Lukko over the past two seasons have shown she’s a stalwart in the making. While she may not see any ice time at the games, she’s used to facing a lot of shots and is highly capable if called upon.
February 11, Finland vs. United States, 2:40 AM EST
February 13, Canada vs. Finland, 2:40 AM EST
February 15, Russia vs. Finland, 2:40 AM EST
Many contend this is Finland’s bronze to lose. In reality, it’s theirs to win, if they can stay out of the box and properly utilize the considerable skill and talent available. This is a team with good chemistry that’s bought in to all the changes head coach Pasi Mustonen has implemented since taking the reins in 2014 after Sochi. Expect a hard, hungry performance and a bronze medal.