Saturday, January 28, 2006

Oh, say can Jussi!

Among this year's crop of sensational rookies in the National Hockey League, most of the attention has fallen upon the likes of young super-phenoms Sidney Crosby, 18, of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alexander Ovechkin, 20, of the Washington Capitals. Without question, Crosby and Ovechkin, both of whom are in the NHL's top 15 in scoring with nearly two-thirds of the season completed, will be the dominant players of the next decade or two. And, arguably, they are the closest proxies of Gretzky and Lemieux that we've seen yet.

Among the remainder of this year's outstanding rookie class is a 22-year-old native of Kalajoki, Finland, named Jussi Jokinen (YOO-see YO-kuh-nehn). In his first season playing for the Dallas Stars, Jokinen has blended in nicely playing primarily with longtime Stars Mike Modano and fellow countryman Jere Lehtinen. While Jokinen (32 points) hasn't put up the numbers of Crosby (59 points) or Ovechkin (64 points) so far, he has excelled beyond expectations when it comes to the newest wrinkle in this season's NHL: the shootout.

Prior to the 2005-06 season, NHL regular season games that were tied after regulation finished with a 5-minute, sudden death overtime period. If the game still was tied after the 5-minute overtime, the game ended in a tie.

This season, the NHL has implemented a three-round shootout - basically a series of 1-on-1 penalty shots pitting a skater against the opposing goaltender - in order to ensure that no game ends in a tie. If the teams are tied after the three rounds of the shootout, they continue going one round at a time until one team wins. It has become an unmitigated hit with the fans.

So, how has Jokinen fared in this newfangled shootout? As the Stars' typical #2 shooter in each of their eight shootouts so far this season, he hasn't missed, including today's exciting 2-1 shootout victory over the Detroit Red Wings. That's right, he's a perfect 8-for-8 going head-to-head with the opposing goaltender.

The next best performance by any other player in the league with at least five shootout attempts is none other than Ovechkin, who's made 6 of 9. But even this surefire phenom hasn't been able to keep pace with Jokinen's perfection.

When Finland's 2006 Olympic hockey team was announced last month, Jussi Jokinen wasn't on the list. But then fate intervened when Chicago Blackhawks forward Tuomo Ruutu suffered what is likely a season-ending ankle injury on January 8th. In order to fill the spot on the Olympic team that opened as a result of Ruutu's injury, the Finnish national team selected Jokinen to take his place in what could be a very portentious decision.

You see, since the shootout is used in international play to decide tied games, having Jussi Jokinen (not to be confused with his unrelated countryman and fellow Olympian Olli Jokinen of the Florida Panthers) there to participate could be the difference between a medal and no medal for Team Finland.

Yes, they will be quite happy to see Jussi in Torino, Italy, with a game on the line, just as his Dallas Stars teammates have been happy to see him on their side all season long.


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