Finnish women seek another medal
Finland enters the 2022 Olympic women’s hockey tournament as the defending bronze medalists from both the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea and the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Canada. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? But there’s more here than meets the eye for the Nordic nation that sits third in the IIHF Women’s World Ranking.
This is a team in transition under Pasi Mustonen, who will serve as head coach at his second and last Olympics. Youth is front and centre. The Beijing roster, announced on 20 January, features a whopping 13 Olympic first-timers, including eight skaters born after the year 2000.
It is very similar to the squad that hit the ice in Calgary in August, but the exclusion of goalie Noora Raty – a four-time Olympian who backstopped Finland to bronze in both 2010 and 2018 and a likely future IIHF Hall of Famer – qualifies as a shocker.
Raty, 32, clashed with Mustonen publicly last year when she elected to run her hockey school in Minnesota rather than join the Women’s Worlds team. Nonetheless, the tenacious and skilled veteran starred for HPK Hameenlinna this season, was invited to the Olympic training camp, and had already agreed to rejoin the Russian Women’s Hockey League’s KRS Vanke Rays after Beijing. So many observers had expected Raty to get one last Winter Games hurrah.
Mustonen, though, can justify his controversial decision by pointing to Anni Keisala’s great performance in Calgary. The 24-year-old Ilves netminder – a positionally sound, cool battler – was named Best Goalie and a tournament all-star at the Women’s Worlds (1.43 GAA, 94.8 save percentage, two shutouts). Meeri Raisanen, 32, provides a capable alternative, although the veteran of five Women’s Worlds did not play at her two previous Olympics (2014, 2018).
The million-dollar question is whether either Keisala or Raisanen is capable of replicating the magic Raty displayed at the history-making run to the silver medal at the 2019 Women’s Worlds in Espoo. There, Raty made 43 saves in a 4-2 semi-final upset over Canada and another 50 saves in the controversial 2-1 gold-medal shootout loss to the Americans.
In Beijing, 26-year-old Eveliina Makinen (nee Suonpaa), who, like Raisanen, sat on the sidelines at both the 2014 and 2018 Games, nabs the third goalie spot. She replaces Jenna Silvonen, the 23-year-old Mercyhurst University netminder who watched in Calgary.
Captain Jenni Hiirikoski headlines the Finnish blueline. Named Best Defender at the last two Olympics and seven Women’s Worlds, the swift-skating 34-year-old superstar plays in every situation. Hiirikoski averaged a tournament-high 26:21 of ice time in Calgary. Other key all-around blueliners include Hiirikoski’s robust Lulea HF teammate Ronja Savolainen and Minttu Tuominen, who will join Raty and forward Susanna Tapani with the Vanke Rays after Beijing.
A noteworthy blueline omission is 33-year-old Rosa Lindstedt, a three-time Olympian who captains Brynas Gavle but was slowed by injuries this season. That puts the onus on three young Kiekko-Espoo defenders to deliver next-level two-way performances.
Nelli Laitinen (12+34=46) and Sanni Rantala (14+30=44), both 19, rank 1-2 in scoring among Naisten Liiga defenders, while Ella Viitasuo, 25, (16+24=40) is third. This Olympics marks Rantala’s senior-level IIHF debut. This trio’s ability to stand up to the forechecking of the North American superpowers could be pivotal.
Offensively, there’s no question the top forward line of Petra Nieminen, Susanna Tapani, and Michelle Karvinen will lead the way.
The explosive Nieminen, 22, led the Women’s Worlds with six goals en route to an all-star team berth. The Lulea winger is second in SDHL scoring (24+28=52) behind Brynas Gavle’s Swiss star Lara Stalder. Tapani – a gifted athlete who also dominates internationally in inline hockey and ringette – will aim with her playmaking skills to get more goals out of Karvinen, a fellow veteran who chipped in six assists but didn’t light the red light at the 2021 Women’s Worlds.
Karvinen, 31, is entering her fourth Olympics and led the 2014 tournament in Sochi with five goals. The Danish-Finnish power forward has filled the net in 10 games with Malmo Redhawks (26+21=47) in the Swedish first division this year.
After that, the margin between victory and defeat against Canada and the U.S. will likely hinge on how much secondary scoring Mustonen gets. In Calgary, the Canadians rallied to beat Finland 5-3 in the opener, while the U.S. blanked Finland 3-0 in both the group stage and the semi-finals.
Kiekko-Espoo’s Elisa Holopainen (38+46=84), bidding to win her third straight Naisten Liiga scoring title, had her lone Women’s Worlds goal against Canada. Gritty Lulea forward Viivi Vainikka’s only goal was the last one in a 6-0 romp over Switzerland. Lulea veteran Noora Tulus, a four-time Swedish champion, has set a new personal career SDHL high in goals this year (18), but hasn’t scored in IIHF competition since the 2017 Women’s Worlds. All these forwards must produce more in Beijing.
Scoring from precocious 16-year-old Sanni Vanhanen, who potted the 1-0 quarter-final winner against Czechia in Calgary, would be a lovely bonus. The Finns can also expect speed and good checking from the likes of Olympic debutante Sofianna Sundelin and second-timer Sanni Hakala.
The Finns have clearly separated themselves from Group A rivals like the ROC team and Switzerland. The Russians last made an IIHF podium with the 2016 Women’s Worlds bronze medal, while the Swiss haven’t won any metal since the surprising 2014 Olympic bronze medal in Sochi. It’s possible that Czechia, which has pushed Finland hard in two consecutive Women’s Worlds quarter-finals now, may pose the biggest counterthreat for third place.
For Mustonen’s crew, anything less than winning their nation’s fourth Olympic bronze medal of all time in Beijing would be a major disappointment. Yet making the Olympic final for the first time in history seems like a long shot. Either way, it’ll be another important step in the Finnish national team’s maturation process.
Anni Keisala, Ilves Tampere
Eveliina Makinen, Brynas Gavle (SWE)
Meeri Raisanen, JYP U20 Akatemia
Jenni Hiirikoski, Lulea HF (SWE)
Sini Karjalainen, University of Vermont (NCAA)
Nelli Laitinen, Kiekko-Espoo
Sanni Rantala, Kiekko-Espoo
Ronja Savolainen, Lulea Gavle (SWE)
Minnamari Tuominen, Kiekko-Espoo
Ella Viitasuo, Kiekko-Espoo
Sanni Hakala, HV71 Jonkoping (SWE)
Elisa Holopainen, Kiekko-Espoo
Michelle Karvinen, Malmo Redhawks (SWE)
Julia Liikala, HIFK Helsinki
Petra Nieminen, Lulea HF (SWE)
Tanja Niskanen, KalPa Kuopio
Jenniina Nylund, St. Cloud State (NCAA)
Sofianna Sundelin, Team Kuortane
Susanna Tapani, KRS Vanke Rays (CHN/RUS)
Noora Tulus, Lulea HF (SWE)
Viivi Vainikka, Lulea HF (SWE)
Sanni Vanhanen, Tappara Tampere
Emilia Vesa, Kiekko-Espoo