Saku knows comebacks

The goat in 2003 becomes the hero in 2008

22.02.2008
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Finland

Shocked Finns Saku Koivu (front) and Janne Niinimaa after Sweden's comeback at the 2003 Worlds in Helsinki. Photo: Europhoto/Pekka Mononen

MONTREAL – For anyone who has been following the IIHF’s countdown of the Top 100 stories, you need only go to number 61 to find a crazy connection between the 2003 World Championship and Montreal’s remarkable 6-5 win over the New York Rangers the other night. Story 61 looks at the greatest comeback in World Championship history, a game in 2003 in which Sweden, trailing 5-1 early in the second period, rallied for a 6-5 win. A few days ago the Rangers led 5-0 early in the second only to lose 6-5 in a shootout.

Finland’s captain Saku Koivu was in the penalty box when Sweden scored the winning goal in 2003. Guess what? Montreal’s captain, Saku Koivu, scored the game winner in the shootout!

The date was May 7, 2003. The venue was the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki. The game was a quarter-finals showdown between geographic rivals Suomi and Tre Kronor. Sweden scored the first goal of the game. Mats Sundin beat Jani Hurme at 4:45, but before the period was over, the Finns scored three times to take an impressive 3-1 lead into the dressing room after 20 minutes.

Koivu assisted on two of the goals, and early in the second period, he assisted on another goal as Finland extended its lead to 5-1 at 6:44. That goal forced coach Hardy Nilsson to pull Tommy Salo in favour of backup Mikael Tellqvist, a move that paid dividends almost instantly. Jorgen Jonsson scored a minute later to make it 5-2, and Peter Forsberg and Jonas Hoglund made it 5-4 before the end of the middle period.

A game that had slaughter written all over it now was up for grabs, and Sweden took control in the final 20 minutes. Forsberg tied the game midway through the period, and then, with Koivu in the penalty box for high-sticking, P-J Axelsson scored the winning goal on the power play at 15:06 to silence the Finnish crowd. It was the most improbable comeback in World Championship history, one that left the Finns in shock and disbelief as the final horn sounded.

Cut to February 19, 2008. Montreal, coming off consecutive weekend wins over Philadelphia, was at the Bell Centre in a big Eastern Conference showdown with the Rangers. But those two wins over the Flyers left the Habs emotionally spent, and the Rangers scored three goals in the first to chase rookie goalie Carey Price from the net. Coach Guy Carbonneau’s move seemed to have little effect because by 5:03 of the second the Rangers had increased their lead to 5-0. Game over. Now, it was just a matter of how many goals the Blueshirts would score.

Michael Ryder scored at 8:28 to make it 5-1, but there were no celebrations, no high fives, only the realisation that this was one goal — there was much work left to be done. Ryder scored again a few minutes later to make it 5-2, and that’s how the second period ended. The turning point came early in the third period. Alex Kovalev scored at 6:43 to get the fans back into the game, and just nine seconds later, Swiss defenceman Mark Streit made it a 5-4 game. All of a sudden, the Rangers were reeling and the Canadiens full of adrenaline. The Bell Centre was rocking like the Cup was in the building. Sure enough, Kovalev scored again late in the period on a power play, and a 5-0 score had been wiped out. The fans were in a frenzy, and history seemed in the making. Overtime failed to make a difference, so a shootout would decide this game.

The first three shooters all failed to score. Brendan Shanahan (Rangers), Andrei Markov (Canadiens), and Chris Drury (Rangers) all missed, and so captain Saku Koivu stood at centre ice, looking at the puck, knowing he had a chance to give his team control of the game. Five years earlier he sat helplessly in the penalty box as Sweden went ahead, 6-5, and now he could avenge that game with one shot. He went in on goalie Henrik Lundqvist, made two quick dekes, and shoved the puck along the ice stick side for the goal. Lundqvist, who was Sweden’s third goalie in that 2003 comeback and watched from the stands as his team beat Koivu’s Finns, was now the victim of a great goal by the Montreal captain. Jaromir Jagr missed the final shot to tie the game, and Montreal’s first five-goal comeback in the team’s 99-year history was complete. The fans poured out to the street having witnessed the team’s greatest comeback.

For Saku Koivu, vindication was complete.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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