World Championship Preview: Finland
Finland looks to get back to the podium after barely missing bronze in 2016.
The 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship tournament comes at an interesting time for women's hockey in Finland. With the Olympics less than a year away, a new women's league announced last week, and the next World Championship being held on Finnish soil in 2019, a medal would be tangible proof they're on the cusp of the watershed moment they’re hoping for. It would also be a welcome comeback after last year's heartbreaking 0-1 bronze medal shootout loss to Russia.
The goaltending choices are far less controversial than they were last year; Noora Räty returns to Worlds after a four-year hiatus and a surprise snub in 2016, but Meeri Räisnen's absence a year after being named to the 2016 IIHF All-Star team is curious. In addition to her All-Star nod, Räisänen was also among the tournament's top-five goaltenders. She has not played for Finland since September.
Meanwhile, Räty’s been on something of a tear with her international play this year. In 14 games for Finland she’s got a .927 save percentage, a 1.80 goals-against average, and a shutout against Canada in Finland’s historic Nations Cup victory this past January
Joining Räty in net are Eveliina Suonpää and Anni Keisala. Keisala, 19, is back for her second World Championship and is fresh off an Aurora Borealis Cup win with Oulun Kärpät. Suonpää managed a .920 regular-season save percentage in 23 games, a rare bright spot during an otherwise dismal season for last-place Rauman Lukko.
While Finland's goaltending is frequently their showpiece, their blue line's mix of size, skill, and talent are nothing to take lightly. Defenders Mira Jalosuo and Rosa Lindstedt both stand at six feet or taller; Jalosuo, of the Minnesota Whitecaps and most recently of Oulun Kärpät, was just named the Most Valuable Player In The Playoffs for her contributions to Kärpät's Aurora Borealis Cup run. Naisleijonat captain Jenni Hiirikoski is a perennial favorite for the World Championship Best Defender title; she's the only five-time winner in the tournament's history and has lost only once since 2009.
Up front, watch for Linda Välimäki at center. The Espoo United captain been the Naisten SM-Sarja's leading goal scorer since the 2013-2014 season and is a four-time Marianne Ihalainen award winner for most points in the league.
Over in Sweden, the women’s SDHL league is home to four forwards on this year’s Finnish roster, including left winger and alternate captain Michelle Karvinen of HC Luleå, who led the league in points with 70.
Also at center is Riikka Välilä, née Nieminen, who is, all hyperbole aside, awesome. Välilä staged a comeback in 2013 after a ten-year hiatus, numerous Hall Of Fame inductions, and a stint as team manager. At 43 years old she continues to produce, because why not? She averaged almost a point per game this season with HV71 in the SDHL and has 13 points in 12 national team appearances. There’s even a Best Player award named after her in the Naisten SM-Sarja and several of its recipients, including the most recent winner Isa Rahunen, will join Välilä on the ice in Michigan.
After their win against Canada at the Nations Cup, look for this Finnish squad to fight hard as they look to reclaim a spot on the medal podium. They’ll have their work cut out against the North American stalwarts, but don’t rule out the possibility of an upset.