With about 11 months until the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I will preview the goaltending for each country going into the Olympics in a weekly series. Today I take a look at Finland, the country known for producing tons of great goaltending talent throughout the years. Do they have the puck stopping crop needed to win the gold medal?

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Pekka RinnePekka Rinne is one of the world’s best goaltenders and unless he suffers some crazy injury that takes him out, he will be in Sochi come 2014. The Nashville Predators superstar started his professional career Kärpät playing predominantly for their junior team between 2000–2003 and after that, for their men’s team in championship-winning years 2004 and 2005, mostly as a backup of Minnesota Wild netminder Niklas Bäckström. Pekka begin his NHL career off very strong in 2009, setting a Predators franchise record with his seventh shutout of the season. That season, Rinne was one of two goaltenders to play for Finland in the 2009 IIHF World Championship, the other one being Karri Rämö, recording a shutout in his first game. Rinne would follow up his impressive rookie season with three 30 plus win campaigns, proving himself to be one of the top elite goaltenders in the world. During the 2011–12 season, Rinne set a franchise record with 11 consecutive wins, passing Tomas Vokoun’s previous mark of 8. Rinne had another excellent year, leading the NHL in wins (43), shots against, saves, and games played. On April 25, 2012, Rinne was named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy awarded to the NHL’s top goaltender, for the second consecutive year. The odds are in Pekka’s favor when it comes to playing in 2014, so Finland, get excited.

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Antti Niemi: Niemi has only three games of international experience during his hockey career, but that shouldn’t stop Niemi from getting a chance next year. The San Jose Sharks starting goaltender had a strong start to his NHL career, winning the 2010 Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks, becoming the third Finnish goalie to make it to the Stanley Cup finals and the first ever to win the Cup. The Blackhawks were unable to sign Niemi to a contract extension at the conclusion of the 2009-2010 campaign and found himself paired with fellow Finnish netminder Antero Niittymäki. After a poor start to the season, Niemi and Niittymäki would end up splitting time for the next few months, but the strong play of Niemi in the month of February, which saw him go 14-2-1 with a 1.91 GAA and .924 save percentage, cemented him as the Sharks’ starting goaltender. Niemi has never been known to steal many wins for his team, and at times he can be a little shaky with the glove, but he has shown he can perform under pressure and could provide depth puck stopping in a backup or third goalie role for the Finns. His performance this season, however, could catapult him into a role on the team, thanks to a 18-8-5 campaign so far to date with three shutouts to boot.

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Tuukka Rask: Rask had to reprove to the hockey world that he could regain his starting goalie form of 2009–10, and with Tim Thomas out of the picture, he has done just that. During the 09-10 regular season, Rask was the only goalie with a goals against average less than 2.00 and the only goalie with a save percentage over .930, just an early sign that he would be a talented goalie in the future. Although he was the only qualifying rookie in NHL history to lead the league with a sub-2.00 goals against average as well as lead the league in save percentage,he was not named as a finalist for the rookie of the year award, despite having supplanted the Vezina Trophy winner Thomas as the starter. The the 2010-11 NHL season, Thomas returned to form, making Rask once again the backup, but he won the Stanley Cup with Boston, becoming only the second Finnish goaltender to do so, after Chicago’s Antti Niemi the previous year. It was only a matter of time until Rask was going to get a chance to show the hockey world that he has the makings of a future Vezina trophy resume, and after 25 games this season, the Finnish netminder has put up 15 wins and only 5 losses to go along with 2 shutouts, putting him in the top goalie talks heading into the playoffs. Does he have what it takes to be the starting goalie next year? I think so.

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Niklas Backstrom: Backstrom has had a very solid season this year and could likely be rewarded for his success by getting named to the Finnish Olympic squad next season. Niklas Bäckström won the 1998 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships as a backup goaltender for the Finnish national team, along with players like Olli Jokinen, Niklas Hagman, Mika Noronen, Niko Kapanen, Toni Dahlman and Eero Somervuori. Bäckström was the third goaltender for Team Finland in the 2006 Winter Olympics, but did not play any games, and later took over as the starting goaltender in 2010 when Miikka Kiprusoff faltered. Backstrom played exceptionally well during his rookie season in 2006-2007, finishing first in the league in both goals against average (GAA) and save percentage, while tying Dwayne Roloson’s team record with five shutouts in just 36 starts.  He recorded 33 wins in the 2007–08 NHL season, and was the starter for Minnesota’s first round playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche, which Colorado won in six games. The goaltender was starting to bloom into one of the league’s top netminders, grabbing 37 wins during the 2008-2009 season, good enough to come second in Vezina voting, but his career hasn’t been the same since. He has been troubled by injury issues the past few seasons, but is on pace to post 25 wins in the lockout shortened 2012-2013 season, the best since 2009-10 if he can in fact pull it off. Backstrom may not have enough left in the tank to be the starting goaltender, but expect him to battle Kari Lehtonen for the third and final spot.

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Kari Lehtonen: There was no question that Kari Lehtonen had the skills to become a top goalie in the NHL. Lehtonen was drafted second overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers after an outstanding 2001–02 season in the Finnish SM-liiga. Lehtonen was the backup goalie for Jokerit at the start of the season, but captured the starting position and won the Urpo Ylönen trophy, given to the best goalie of the season, and the league’s playoff MVP award, the Jari Kurri trophy. After proving himself in his home country, Lehtonen came over to the NHL where he would get off to a hot start early. In just his second season with the Atlanta Thrashers, breaking the previous Thrashers shutout record while posting 34 wins all in the same season. He began to go on a downward slide, however, due to numerous injuries plauging the rest of his time in Atlanta. Getting traded to Dallas back in 2010 really revived the talented netminder’s career, as he was able to put up back to back 30+ win campaigns. Internationally, the 29 year old Lehtonen has won the Silver Medal in the 2007 IIHF World Championships (as well as the Best Goalkeeper award), three medals a t the World Juniors (two bronze, one silver), a Gold and a Silver at the u18 World Championships and a silver medal in the 2004 World Cup. Lehtonen will have to improve on his play with the Stars this year, though, if he plans on making the team in 2014, but there is no question Lehtonen will be a big contender heading into the official roster announcement later this year.

My Picks:

1. Pekka Rinne

2. Tuukka Rask

3. Niklas Backstrom

Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

Steven took a different route towards his hockey interests. Starting out as a big Habs fan, he started to gravitate towards the more obscure levels of hockey, such as the low level tournaments in Asia, strange club matches between teams most people in North America can’t pronounce, and even some 3am contests between Bulgaria and New Zealand. Aside from his love for strange hockey events, Steven occasionally acts as a mediocre ball hockey goalie following a failed attempt at making it to the NHL as a fourth line house league grinder. Beyond hockey, Steven is an avid racing fan and loves to chat about NASCAR, F1, Indycar, you name it. Oh, and don’t get him started on music. That is, unless you want the whole history of metal and a guitar lesson. Currently, Steven is a credentialed media member with the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL, as well as with the Oakville Blades of the OJHL. Steven has also hosted the television show "The Hockey House" on TVCogeco in Ontario, as well as a segment under the same with on LeafsTV in Toronto. Home page: http://www.thehockeyhouse.net

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