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World Cup of Hockey

Team Finland giving Sami Lepisto second chance

Once seventh defenseman, veteran now being leaned on for World Cup

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial

ETOBICOKE, Ontario -- Team Finland defenseman Sami Lepisto wasn't sure this day would come. Now that it has, he plans to savor every minute of the experience.

Lepisto, 31, thought he was going to be the odd-man out in the youth movement transforming the Finland national team at a rapid rate.

"Of course, you want to play," Lepisto said after practice at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence on Friday. "Believing in myself, I know what I can do."

But it wasn't clear if the Team Finland coaching staff felt the same way, at least at the start of preparations for the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

Lepisto started training camp as the seventh defenseman as Team Finland went with a collection of 25-and-under players with gaudy international resumes but precious little NHL experience.

But then some of the younger players began to struggle. Team Finland lost 6-3 to Team Sweden in a pretournament game Sept. 10. Then in the final pretournament game, against Team USA in Washington on Tuesday, Team Finland allowed three goals on 22 shots in the first two periods.

Team Finland coach Lauri Marjamaki did not like what he saw and juggled the defense pairs for the third period. He went a step further Wednesday, placing Lepisto in the six-man rotation in place of Jyrki Jokipakka.

For Lepisto, it was validation for the hard work he put in since World Cup training camp started Sept. 5. Now he'll likely play on the third defense pair with Ville Pokka in Team Finland's World Cup opener against Team North America at Air Canada Centre on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).

"What can you do? You just have to do your thing and hopefully get a chance," Lepisto said. "Right now I'm starting and hopefully I will finish the tournament."

Marjamaki said he wanted to accomplish a couple things by inserting Lepisto into the lineup. He wanted to make sure he kept an even number of left-shot and right-shot defensemen; Lepisto is a left-handed shot, just like Jokipakka.

He also wanted to add a veteran presence into the rotation to settle down some of the younger players. Marjamaki was an assistant coach at the 2014 Sochi Olympics for Finland, which won the bronze medal with a defense that averaged 31 years of age. The average age of Team Finland's defensemen for the World Cup, minus Lepisto, is 22.

The lineup that played against Team USA on Tuesday had 666 games of NHL experience, mostly split between Olli Maatta, Sami Vatanen and Rasmus Ristolainen. Lepisto played 176 games in the League in parts of five seasons with the Washington Capitals, Phoenix Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks from 2007-12.

"We need some experience," Marjamaki said. "Lepisto is an experienced guy. We don't have that many experienced guys here."

Video: Team Finland talks about the competition at media day

Said Ristolainen: "He's calm with the puck. He's an older guy, experienced guy. He's good all-around [defenseman]. He's good at everything."

Lepisto has spent the past five seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. Last season he had 11 goals and 30 points in 60 games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. He started this season with four assists in five games.

While those numbers are impressive, Lepisto believes he is a much better player than the one who was often a healthy scratch in 2011-12 with the Blackhawks, his final NHL season.

"The last year in Chicago, I was basically not playing at all," he said. "So you start doing different things just to try to survive in the lineup. I was playing differently. Now I am playing the same as before and now I am back at [my] game.

"I think I'm a better player, more experienced, more relaxed at times. I like to think I am better than I was my last year in Chicago. I found I started liking hockey again. I get to play a ton and can express myself more on the ice."

Lepisto said he hopes he can use the World Cup to show the growth in his game. He doesn't know if it will lead to a return to the NHL, but that hope never leaves, he says. He enjoys playing in the KHL but has not closed the door on a return to North America.

"I've been happy in Russia," he said. "It is a little different. Of course the NHL is where you want to be. But my last couple of years [in the NHL], I was the odd-man out, like here at the start [of Team Finland camp]. Then I went overseas and I was able to play a ton.

"It is exciting to be back here and be able to play. Of course I'm interested if someone wants to bring me over. I'm interested because the NHL is such a great place to be."

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