Finns Block Russia's Shot at Medal; Set Up a Nordic Semi-Final
The traditional hockey rivalry between Finland and Sweden is cordial. Edgy, but cordial.
There's a huge Swedish influence within its eastern neighbor's culture. For one, Swedish is the second national language in Finland. For another, Swedish kings ruled over much of Finnish lands for more than six centuries. And yet, relations between the two countries are warm.
Not so between Finland and Russia.
The Finns entered World War II as an Axis ally, not necessarily because it shared Nazi philosophy, but because the Germans were fighting the Russians. Afterward, as the Iron Curtain fell over Eastern Europe, the term Finlandization personnified the Soviet Union's heavy-handed influence over a feisty nation. In effect, while Stalin allowed the Finns to be considered a neutral country -- as opposed to a 'satellite' republic like the USSR's other occupied territories -- the term neutered was more accurate.
To this day, the Finns haven't forgotten.
This latent animosity is almost always an undercurrent when the Leijonat face the Russian bear on the ice. During the years of Soviet hockey dominance in the Olympics, this was merely an annoyance for the Hammer & Sickle. For the past two decades, though, the Finns are getting theirs back and loving it.
2014 began with Finland winning the World Junior Championship over the favored Swedes on Tre Kronor ice. Today, the Lion roared again, deposing the host Russians in their $50billion venue built around the expectation of a return by Russian hockey to the Olympic medal podium's top platform.
The Finns got the 3-1 win because they know who they are: selfless skaters who understand and accept their roles. And of course, it doesn't hurt to have one of hockey's premier goaltenders plugging any leaks in the defense. Russia's collection of supremely talented individuals peppered Tuukka Rask with 38 shots, many of them world class, but only one got through.
The telling contrast was in the status of each side's poise. Illya Kovalchuk registered the game's first goal, but Finland was unfazed and stuck with its game plan of controlling middle ice and sacrificing health to block shots, which they did in abundance. After Mikael Granlund -- a Swedish surname, incidentally -- tallied the Finns' third goal in the second period, Russia's brightest stars began their attempts to launch a comeback single-handedly. As a result of this devolution, shifts got longer and more futile. This undisciplined approach played directly into Finland's hands, and the game clock melted away quietly, along with Russian hopes for glory in its homeland.
Ironically, the team that rekindled memories of the old Soviet and Central Red Army days was Sweden. Like the Finns, the Tre Kronor are missing key players through pre-Olympic injuries -- Henrik Zetterberg (herniated disk), Johan Franzen (concussion), and Henrik Sedin (ribs) -- and like the Finns, the Swedish machine simply plugs another talented player into the system, where he's expected to know his role and perform accordingly.
Slovenia was playing its third game in four days, a daunting task for this newcomer to international hockey's ultimate showcase. It was too much to expect against the Tre Kronor's elegant overlays, touch passes, and weak-side timing strikes. Even more to the point, the speed of Sweden's execution left vapor trails around a valiant but exhausted underdog. The Swedes simply wore Slovenia down. They weren't concerned that the score was only 1-0 entering the third period; they were confident their high-energy pace would take its toll on the opposition, and four third-period goals proved them right.
So now Fri 21 Feb is an unofficial holiday in much of Scandinavia, when two teams at the top of their game vie for a spot in the gold medal game. Meanwhile, the nation and team that believe hockey is their game are left to wonder how long it will be before it ever is again.