Karlsson's Booming Blueline Blast Sends Swedes to Gold Medal Game
When a game at the highest level of hockey is as tightly contested as this one, it's only fitting that someone does something special to win it.
Enter Swedish defenseman Erik Karlsson, only 23 and already a Norris Trophy winner.
His howitzer of a heater through goalie Kari Lehtonen capped a second-period power play and proved to be the deciding strike as the Tre Kronor out-willed a determined Finland, 2-1, to advance to the Olympic championship game on Sun 23 Feb.
Lehtonen has had a solid season to date with the Dallas Stars, and he was a quality replacement for the Leijonat when their smoking hot starter, Tuukka Rask, was felled by flu-like symptoms. There were murmurs when Karlsson's slapshot tore through the gap between Lehtonen's stick hand and his torso, but the reality is the Finnis backstop was fortunate to get that close to making the save.
Karlsson's firing mechanism is in the classic Swedish mold. It's more of a V-shaped swing than an L-shape or the small-U route that is so prevalent in elite hockey today, for the justifiable reason that the latter is quicker to release. Players with the power of a Zdeno Chara or a Shea Weber do well with it, but Karlsson's lightning-fast vertical load and downstroke generate such energy at contact that the shot rockets goalward with a heaviness that only square-on contact will stop.
Sweden's man advantage occurred when Olli Jokinen was whistled for tripping. It was a cruel counterbalance for his hustle goal that opened the game's scoring. The Finnish center never gave up on an apparent icing that was negated when a Swedish defenseman pinched instead of playing the puck. Jokinen's shot from an extreme angle was seemingly smothered by goaltender par excellence Henrik Lundqvist, but it trickled behind him and over the line just prior to the referee blowing the play down. An official replay confirmed it, and the Finns had a lead.
Tre Kronorna countered just over five minutes later on a tic-tac-toe sequence for which they are so well known. Nicklas Backström did the dirty work behind the net to secure the puck and tape-to-tape it to Johnathan Ericsson, who promptly deflected it toward Loui Eriksson just outside the crease's weak side. The Boston Bruins forward had a gaping net before him and made no mistake.
It was one of the few times Sweden's vaunted lateral game clicked against the Finns, who after so many years -- from international youth competitions on up -- had seen their share of it. They're disciplined enough to watch for it and defend it, which only adds to how impressive the Swedes are in their precision and effectiveness with it.
Since NHL players have been allowed to compete in the Olympics, no country has won more hockey medals than Finland. However, it's never struck gold. Sweden has, twice. It's now got a hard-fought chance to do so again.