SOCHI, Russia – A reporter suggested to Swedish star Daniel Alfredsson Thursday that his country’s winning ways in men’s hockey might be the best-kept secret at the Sochi Olympics.
“Let’s keep it that way,” Alfredsson said.
That’s an impossible task now that Sweden has downed Finland 2-1 to earn a place in Sunday’s gold medal game against Canada, which beat the USA 1-0 later Friday.
“Our first game was our worst game and this one was our best game, so it is a good sign,” said Swedish winger Daniel Sedin.
The Swedes were able to hold a one-goal lead for the final 23 minutes of the game.
“I felt we were one step behind the whole game pretty much,” said Finland captain Teemu Selanne.
The Swedes have run off five consecutive wins, all in regulation, to reach the gold medal game for the second time in the past three Olympics. They won gold in 2006.
Three weeks ago, the Swedes were considered one of the tournament medal favorites, but that changed after Henrik Sedin announced he couldn’t play because of a rib injury and Henrik Zetterberg pulled out after one game in Sochi because of a back problem. With everyone talking about the USA, Russia and Canada, the Swedes grabbed the No. 1 seed without garnering attention.
With those two difference-makers sidelined, expectations about the team were softened. But the expected dip in the Swedes’ performance level never occurred.
They have outscored the opposition 17-6 while displaying a determined playing style that will keep the Swedes competitive with Canada. Their defense is efficient, and their offense is still effective, despite the loss of a couple of stars.
The Finns were playing without No. 1 goalie Tuukka Rask, who was ill. His replacement, Kari Lehtonen, was solid, making 23 saves.
“The energy,” said Selanne. “Maybe they had a little bit more than we did.”.
The Swedes and Finns are neighbors and they are not friendly to each other. Their rivalry is intense.
“We had to work to get this one,” Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “(The Finns) are a very disciplined team.”.
Their semifinal was scoreless after one period, and the Finns scored the first goal. In the second period, Finland’s Olli Jokinen won a race to the puck in the Swedish end and swatted a shot that leaked through Lundqvist to give the Finns a 1-0 lead at 6:17.
“I definitely thought it was icing, so I kind of relaxed,” Lundqvist said. “I just made a bad move.”.
Loui Eriksson tied the score for at 11:39 of the period when he converted a pass from Jonathan Ericsson.
The game-winner came on the power play when Erik Karlsson ripped a slap shot through Lehtonen from 55 feet for his fourth goal of the tournament. Unquestionably, Karlsson is the most dominant offensive defenseman in the tournament.
“Karlsson’s shot was amazing to watch,” said Lehtonen.
The Swedes will enter the gold medal game with confidence. Their defensive play, led by Niklas Kronwall, has been sharp and Lundqvist is considered one of the world’s best goalies. He won gold in 2006.
“He likes these games,” defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “When you need him in big games, he’s the kind of guy who wants to be there.”.
In Oduya’s second-to-last game before the Olympic break, he played against Lundqvist and his New York Rangers.
“I saw this coming,” Oduya said. “He pretty much shut us down. I had a feeling it was going his way.”.
Lundqvist is encouraged about Sunday because he felt that his team keeps improving.
“I hope we saved our best for last,” Lundqvist said, “because we are going to need it.”.
Finland, meanwhile, will look to continue its lead in overall medals since NHL players started going to the Olympics in 1998. They will have a shot at a fourth when they play the USA in the bronze medal game on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a big game again,” Selanne said. “Recovery time is very short, but let’s try to take what is left.”.