Known as the sleeper of the national teams, Finland has had tremendous success on the international stage despite not having a star-studded roster. The country has earned the most medals during Olympic play since NHL players were first allowed to represent their countries in the Winter Games in 1998. Recently two Tampa Bay Lightning teammates were invited to Finland’s orientation camp, second-year Lightning defenseman Sami Salo and newly-acquired forward Valtteri Filppula.
Salo, a veteran blueliner, who split time with the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks before joining Tampa Bay in 2012-13, will make his case for a fourth time with Finland during the first half of the 2013-14 Lightning campaign. The national team has been well-represented by the Turku, Finland native as he played a key role in the team’s past Olympic successes.
“The Olympics are an amazing event that only a few people have a chance to attend and I’ve already been able to attend three,” said Salo. “I’ve got one Silver and one Bronze Medal, the only goal is obviously to get the brightest one, the Gold Medal.”
Manning the blue line during the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Winter Games for Finland, the 38-year-old won the Silver Medal in 2006 and the Bronze Medal in 2010. During that span Salo amassed two goals and four assists in 16 games played.
Other defensive possibilities for the 2014 team include Toni Lydman, Joni Pitkanen and Kimmo Timonen. The trio also joined Salo as part of defensive pairing units during the run in 2010.
“We’ve had more than half the team together for a long time,” said Salo. “It’s been really easy for everybody to get into the system and in the rhythm with such a short time to prepare.”
Strong goaltending has become quintessential for Finland with Niklas Backstrom, Kari Lehtonen, Antti Niemi, Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne all earning an invite to the initial camp in August and then there’s a mix of players in their prime, including Filppula. The Vantaa, Finland native, who recorded three goals in six games in 2010, expects to have a bigger presence if he makes the 2014 team.
“It’s always the goal to have a bigger role wherever you play,” said Filppula. “That’s my plan with the national team too.”
Filppula looked to be on the upswing as he had his best season to date in 2011-12 with the Detroit Red Wings by contributing 66 points (23 goals, 43 assists) in 81 games, but struggled with a minor injury in last year’s shortened season with Detroit, managing just 17 points (nine goals, eight assists).
“You always want to do better in every aspect of the game,” said Filppula. “Last year I couldn’t produce the points that I wanted to and I hope I can do better next year. That’s going to be a big focus.”
After spending his entire career with the Red Wings, Filppula was obtained by the Lightning as a free agent earlier in July. The ninth-year center will have the added pressure of getting acclimated with a team he’s never played for, but there is one exception – Salo. The two wore the same sweaters during Finland’s 2010 Olympic run.
“I talked to Salo after I signed,” said Filppula. “I played with another Fin for a little bit, but I haven’t really had a chance to play with a Fin for a longer period of time, so that will be exciting too.”
Salo will have plenty of time to work with Filppula and help him fit comfortably into the Lightning locker room and it could serve as an optimal chance to show the national team they’re a good fit in Finland.
“It always helps to have someone on the team that you know from before,” said Filppula. “He’s going to be a big help for me, especially in the beginning.”
With orientation camp ahead in August, Salo and Valtteri will meet for the first time as teammates before heading back to Bolts training camp in September. The duo will then get a chance to show the national team they’re ready to be teammates once again in Finland.
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