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Fargo U18 Preview: Finland

Finland should be a very interesting, and entertaining team to watch in this tournament. Traditionally, the Finns are on the outskirts of world hockey royalty. They've always got a couple of top flight stars, but can never really field a full team of them the way a Canada or Russia or even the United States can. But this tournament could a rare chance for them to sneak up and steal the spotlight. Their not the strongest team in the tournament, but with all of the other major players having some glaring weaknesses, the Finns could sneak up on people and win the whole tournament.

This is the World U18 Championships, but this year's Finland team looks like the greatest U14 team you ever saw. As a team, they are all around tiny, but they are also all tremendous skaters that can do things with the puck.

Depth will be an issue for Finland, they really only have two good lines and two solid D pairings, but those players could be good enough to carry them. Their top line is absolutely deadly on the powerplay and as a result, should be among the tournament leaders in points. If these games are called tightly and Finland gets a lot of powerplay opportunities, they're going to score a lot of goals and be very successful.

Key Players: #20 F Teemu Pulkkinen, #21 F Toni Rajala, #12 Erik Haula, #9 Sami Vatanen

Write-ups on individual players are after the jump.

(Note: All player rankings in parenthesis are from the NHL Central Scouting Mid-term Rankings for European Skaters, unless otherwise noted.)

Goalie Joni Ortio is the top rated Finnish goaltender and should be the starter in all of their games. He suffered what looked like a right leg injury against Canada in their first exhibition game, but returned on Tuesday night and showed no signs of injury. Prior to getting injured, he made some nice acrobatic saves against Canada.

Some player notes...

Teemu Pulkkinen(2010 eligible): This kid looks like he's going to be a superstar. He's absolutely electric 1-on-1 against a defender, and made a lot of highly ranked defenseman look absolutely silly. He's a natural goalscorer that could be among the tournament leaders in goals. I've heard a lot of good things about Taylor Hall, and I've been a huge Cam Fowler fan for years now, but Pulkkinen might be good enough to get consideration as the top overall pick in next year's draft.

Toni Rajala(14): Rajala is a very small forward that received a lot of hype coming out of Finland as a potential first round pick, but NHL Central Scouting didn't seem to agree, having him much lower. I tend to lean closer towards Central Scouting on this one. He's very skilled when he gets time and space, but I could see disappearing against bigger, faster competition. He's a world-class passer, but I just have a tough time seeing him overcome his size.

Erik Haula(55 in North America, Minnesota commit): Haula played the last year in North America at Shattuck-St. Mary's, but he's still a Finn at heart. He's a very fast, skilled kid that sometimes struggles against more physical players. He missed Finland's first exhibition because he was playing with Shattuck at the national championships. On Tuesday, it looked like he was still adjusting to the increase in speed and physicality of this level of play.

Sami Vatanen(20): I heard one comparison to fellow countryman Kimmo Timmonen and that seems spot on. Vatanen is very small for a defenseman, but is an extremely smart offensive defenseman that is always finding a way to create offense. He quarterbacks Finland's powerplay from the point and is great at firing a hard, accurate one-timer from the point. He's also Finland's captain.

Tommi Kivisto(46 in North America): A rock solid defenseman that Finland will really rely on to log a fair amount of ice time, and be one of the more physical presenences for the Finns, even though he's not the biggest guy.

Mikael Granlund(2010 eligible): Granlund centers the top line with Pulkkinen and Rajala and really loves to dish the puck around, almost to a fault. He had a chance to win the game against Canada for the Finns when he got a 2-on-1 in overtime. The defenseman played the pass all the way, but Granlund wanted no part of the shot and ended up trying to force a pass across that was unsuccessful. He should pick up a decent amount of points playing with Pulkkinen, however.

Janne Kumpulainen(Unranked): Very small, but also very speedy. A hard-worker that managed to pick up a pair of points in each exhibition game.