With the precise detail of Swedish furniture, but lacking the color, the Swedish men's ice hockey team held off Finland for a 2-1 victory, earning a trip to the gold-medal game for the second time in the last three Winter Olympics. The Swedes topped the Finns in the 2006 Olympic final in Turin by using much the same formula they did on Friday in Sochi: stifling defense, astute penalty killing, strong goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist and some opportunistic scoring.
On Friday, Lundqvist made 25 saves and Erik Karlsson’s power play goal late in the second period stood up as the winner. “I thought we played a great game, our best in the tournament so far,” said Lundqvist. “We kept the chances down and made life easy on the goalie. Those last four or five seconds were the best feeling you can have.”
It was a game that saw two trapping, conservative Scandinavian teams searching for a counter-punch -- a contest of deliberation and strategy, with elite-level chess meeting extra-strength Ambien for most of 60 minutes. One NHL executive said that the game resembled an NBA game without the 24-second shot clock.
The Swedes offered no apologies for their painstaking approach. “We were happy with our game,” Karlsson insisted. “We controlled the neutral zone and the defensive zone and kept their chances to a minimum. That’s how we play.”
The game wasn’t entirely without chances. Lundqvist made a glove stop on Leo Komarov’s semi-break away midway through the first period. The Swedes also killed off 1:35 of a 5-on-3 power play later in the period, with Lundqvist denying Finland’s best chance when he slid across the goal mouth to kick out Teemu Selanne’s attempted conversion of a cross-crease pass.
“I think we weathered the storm there,” said Swedish defenseman Nick Hjalmarsson. “We had way too many penalty kills in the first period. I was still gassed in the second period from that so it took me a while to recover. We played really well three-on five there. I think they maybe had just one really good chance.”
After a scoreless first period, Finland struck first at 6:17 of the second, when defenseman Sami Vatanen fired a puck toward the left corner of the net. His teammate Olli Jokinen won the race to the puck, took the bounce off the boards and slid a low, bad-angle shot just off the ice that banked off Lundqvist’s pads and slithered into the net, giving Finland a 1-0 lead.
Sweden tied it five minutes later as Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta turned the puck over to Daniel Sedin in the left corner. Sedin then kicked the puck to teammate Nick Backstrom, who quickly flipped it to high slot where defenseman Jonathan Ericsson wound up to shoot. Instead, Ericsson one-timed a pass to Loui Ericsson, who was set up for an easy conversion.
Kari Lehtonen made 23 saves for Finland, subbing in for ace goalie Tuukka Rask, who missed the game with an unspecified illness. But Rask’s illness wasn’t the problem.
“We have three really good goalies and anyone can win,” said Jokinen. “What can you do? ... We’re really disappointed. It was exactly the game we thought it would be, tight, close. We just didn’t come through.”
Sweden jumped in front, 2-1, with 3:34 to play in the second period when Karlsson drove a 55-footer that caught a piece of Lehtonen’s padding around his right shoulder, but then sailed right into the net.
The game marked the last chance for 43-year-old Selanne to win his snake-bitten country's first Olympic gold medal. Since 1988, Finland has won five medals in men’s ice hockey, more than any other nation. Selanne was credited with two shots on goal in the game, but missed the net on several others. The Swedes packed in their defense as they often do, during a tight third period. With about nine minutes to play, Lundqvist denied Selanne’s slapshot from the mid-slot during a Finnish power play.
“I’m more disappointed that we couldn’t play our best game in the tournament,” Selanne said. “More disappointed in that than the result.”
The ice and clock management was a tribute to the resourceful Swedes, who were missing forwards Henrik Zetterberg (herniated disc), Henrik Sedin (rib injury) and Johan Franzen (concussion). But few teams do more with less than Sweden, which will surely make the gold-medal matchup a very tough test for a North American team.
“I think it’s going to be a totally different style,” said Hjalrmarsson. “And hopefully it’s more entertaining for the crowd to watch, too. Hopefully there’s going to be a lot of people watching around the world and we can do a good promotion for the game and play a good game for the crowd.”
The Swedes will be vying for third Olympic title, having won gold in 2006 and in 1994, when Peter Forsberg turned Canadian goalie Corey Hirsch into the sadder half of a postage stamp.
“When Sweden won the Olympics [the second time], I was standing on my dad’s couch and cheering,” recalled Swedish forward Gabriel Landeskog. “My dad was telling me to sit down. I said, ‘Sit down? What do you mean? We just won the Olympics.’ It would be great to experience that, myself.”
But the difficulty of the task is not lost on Lundqvist, who knows that both North American squads have more weapons in their offensive arsenal than the Finns. “I hope we save our best for next; we are going to need it,” he said. “We’ll be facing a better team. It’s our toughest test.”