WJC Upset: Finns Pilfer Gold from the Swedish Machine
It's a Scandinavian rivalry that often means more to one team than to the other.
Finland is usually considered by most of the international hockey world as able to field spirited squads with elite goaltenders that have only enough depth to make games interesting and fourth-place tournament finishes accomplishments.
Sweden is usually mentioned in the same breath as Canada and Russia as perennial hockey powers, being favorites or co-favorites in any tournment it plays.
So it was in Malmö, where the Swedish hosts unleased a juggernaut on the World Junior Championships, cruising unbeaten into the gold medal game after dispatching the likes of Russia in the semi-finals. Meanwhile, Finland had barely survived its quarterfinal clash with the Czech Republic, overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the third period to register a 5-3 victory and a match against the mighty Canadians in the semi-finals.
That the Finns rode the coattails of their next megastar goalie -- the amazing Juuse Saros, a Nashville Predators draft choice -- is an understatement. He gave their only true scoring line of Teuvo Teräväinen-Saku Mäenalanen-Artturi Lehkonen, and powerful Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen the time they needed to find a way forward for the Leijonat. This worked to perfection.
Sweden had swept through six straight opponents, including a 4-2 triumph over Finland in pool play. It boasted a roster of high NHL draft choices, captained by the spectacular Filip Forsberg, who -- as with Ristolainen -- is already playing in the NHL. The host country had taken to these Små Kronor to the extent that the gold medal game's national television coverage began at 9am local time, six hours before the puck dropped.
These prodigies were considered the best Swedish U20 team since 1993's team, which was led by the likes of Peter Forsberg, with Niklas Sundström, Kenny Jönsson, and Mats Näslund. They formed the core of the Swedish team that would take Olympic gold at Lillehammer -- and put Forsberg on a postage stamp -- and they swept unscathed through to the WJC final.
Like this year, that event was held in Sweden, in Gävle. And like this year, that team fell at the final hurdle, too, as Canada prevailed, 3-2.
And so it goes. But for now, it's the Finns who stand atop the junior hockey world, and all it takes is a look at Ristolainen's expression after he sealed the deal with a power move for the ages to know what it meant to him, his team, and his hockey-worshipping country.