Sweden-Finland final could be an aesthetic disaster
Posted: Friday February 24, 2006 6:52PM; Updated: Friday February 24, 2006 7:16PM
The difference in Sunday's gold-medal game could be goaltending, where Antero Niittymaki has played great for Finland.
SI.com's Michael Farber breaks down the Olympic men's hockey final:
The matchup: FINLAND vs. SWEDEN The skinny: If Keith Jackson were calling the Olympic final, he might say, "Whoa, Nellie, these teams just don't like each other." (Indeed with the ratings this Nordic smackdown might draw on NBC Sunday morning, the network might be delighted to hand the Olympics right back to Jackson's ABC.)
The countries share a border and a healthy dislike for each other, although it really is a sort of a big brother-little brother thing, a USA-Canada rivalry played out between a bunch of blondes.
"That's probably the most hated team we face in hockey," Finland captain Saku Koivu said. "People are going nuts back home. For a Finn, having an Olympic gold medal game against Sweden, it's not getting any bigger." The Finns played a textbook game in the 4-0 cakewalk against the feared Russians in the semifinal, clogging the neutral zone like it was rush hour on the Long island Expressway.
Finnish checker Ville Nieminen has played on some solid defensive teams, including the 2004 Stanley Cup finalist Calgary Flames, but said he never has seen a team so committed to team defense. With five shutouts in seven tournament games, he has a point.
The Swedes present a different kind of challenge for the Finns than the Russians, beyond the geopolitical.
With star Peter Forsberg apparently healthy and playing left wing on Mats Sundin's line, coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson has been able to reunite Samuel Pahlsson, P.J. Axelsson and Daniel Alfredsson, a line that played together for four months and helped Frolunda to the Swedish Elite League title during the NHL lockout.
"In a short tournament," Alfredsson said, "having that familiarity helps." They are likely to play against the Koivu-Teemu Selanne-Jere Lehtinen line, the most dependable in the Olympics. Although Sundin and Forsberg had never played together before, their on-ice chemistry has been exceptional. They could be a load for Kimmo Timonen and Teppo Numminen, the top Finnish defense pair. Sundin, incidentally, has been a monster internationally.
Although the Swedes bowed out ingloriously in the Olympic quarters in 2002, Sundin might have been the best forward in the tournament. He looks primed for gold now.
Considering the magnitude of the game and the texture of the rivalry, you might suspect this will be a fabulous final. Sorry. This could be an aesthetic disaster.
In the 1998 quarterfinals in Nagano, Finland lured the more talented Swedes into a dump-it-in, dump-it-out trap-a-thon, a style that suits the Swedish temperament, and their passive 1-4 forecheck, more than it does their fabulous skills. Sweden opened up in the final five minutes but still lost, 2-1, to a team that went on to win a surprise bronze. "We want to get them to play our game," said defenseman Timonen, a member of the 1998 team. "That's how we win."
The difference in a tight-checking game could be goaltending. Sweden's Henrik Lundqvist, big and mobile, has played capably although rarely stunningly while Antero Niittymaki, third on the Finnish depth chart prior to the Olympics -- before Miikka Kirprusoff and Kari Lehtonen pulled out with injuries -- has yielded little behind a defense that simply won't allow odd-man rushes or forwards to wheel through the neutral zone. Lundqvist has looked shaky on some shots to the short side and left some juicy rebounds, a potentially fatal flaw against an opportunistic team that seems sprinkled with pixie dust.