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Finland: Granlund the great returns

Sunaya Sapurji
Yahoo Sports

Group B: FINLAND

Last year’s finish: Sixth
Last year’s round robin record: 3-0-1-0

Yahoo! Sports has asked current Canadian Hockey League imports – some of whom are playing in the tournament – to break down their national teams.

Helsinki native Mika Partanen, a forward with the OHL’s Mississauga Majors, keeps in regular contact with his countrymen and how they’re faring back home thanks to Facebook and other social media. He believes this year’s team will be much better than last year’s squad in terms of firepower thanks to their 10 NHL draft picks, including YouTube sensation Mikael Granlund, whose lacrosse-style goal against Russia in the semifinals of the 2011 World Hockey Championship earned him a place on a Finnish postage stamp.

“They (the Finns) have more offensive skill,” said Partanen, who failed to garner an invite to Finland’s camp this year. “They’ll have the best player there – Granlund.”

Actually, the Finns will have two Granlunds – Minnesota Wild first-rounder Mikael and his younger brother Markus, a second-round pick of the Calgary Flames – at their disposal for this year’s tournament

“They’re both good, but (Mikael) is better,” said Partanen. “They’re both drafted, but Mikael is probably going to be in the NHL next year. Markus plays the same style as his brother.”

Mikael Granlund will most likely be one of the top players in the tournament based on his season to date with IFK Helsink in Finland’s elite SM-liiga, where he plays with plays with Markus. Before leaving for the tournament, Mikael was second in league scoring with 38 points (16 goals and 22 assists) in 30 games.

Goaltender Sami Aittokallio, a fourth-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche, is expected to be the team’s starter this time around after serving as the backup to Joni Ortio last year in Buffalo. Aittokallio plays for Ilves in the SM-liiga, meaning Finnish head coach Raimo Helminen will be familiar with him since the former NHL is also an assistant coach with the club team. This is Helminen’s first year as head coach of the national team after two years as an assistant.

“He’s one of the most famous Finnish players ever,” said Partanen of the coach, who holds the record for playing hockey in the most Olympic Games – six – including a silver-medal performance at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. “He’s a big star.”

Finland opens the tournament on Boxing Day against Canada in Calgary and a good showing to start the round robin would be huge.

“We need to play well to get our confidence up,” said Partanen. “We’ll do our best and let’s hope we win that game.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Forward Joel Armia (Porin Ässät, SM-Liiga) Outside of the aforementioned Granlund brothers, Armia is probably the most familiar to North Americans who follow the NHL draft. The Buffalo Sabres’ 16th overall pick in 2011 was a member of the squad last year. “He played great last year but he’s started a little bit slower this year,” Partanen said.

Forward Miikka Salomäki (Karpat, SM-Liiga) Another returning player from last year’s team, at 5-11 and 195 pounds he’s a guy that Partanen says plays much bigger than his size. “He’s a strong guy. He likes to hit and is good in front of the net – a good all-around player.”

Forward Teemu Pulkkinen (Jokerit, SM-Liiga) A fourth-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings (2010) has tons of international experience including the world U18 where he led the led the tournament in scoring with 15 points in six games and started his pro career at age 16. “He’s a pure goal scorer.”

MUST WIN GAME: With three teams per pool advancing to the medal round, barring an upset over Canada or the U.S., the Dec. 31st game against the Czech Republic could decide who goes through and who goes home.

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
Email: sunaya@yahoo-inc.com | Twitter @Sunayas

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