VANCOUVER – It was an historic night at Canada Hockey Place, as Finland earned a comeback 5-3 win in its inaugural Olympic meeting with Slovakia on Saturday to claim the 2010 bronze.Click here for the photo gallery of the game.
The gutsy Finns trailed 3-1 heading into the third period, but Olli Jokinen scored a pair of third-period goals, including the winner with 11:19 left, to lead the rally. Sami Salo, Niklas Hagman, and Valtteri Filppula also scored for Finland.
For Finland, Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, and Ville Peltonen all succeeded in tying Vladislav Tretiak (USSR), Igor Kravchuk (USSR/Russia), and Jiri Holik (Czechoslovakia) for the most Olympic hockey medals won (4). The three battle-hardened Finns now have a silver (2006) and three bronzes (1994, 1998, 2010) apiece.
"I think that shows a lot about them and Finnish hockey," said Koivu's younger brother, Mikko. "There are always people who question our team and our talent before these tournaments. This achievement shows our character and the strength of our team."
"When you see players like Lehtinen and Peltonen and Koivu sacrificing their bodies and blocking shots, you realize how many leaders we have," added Finnish forward Tuomo Ruutu. "I am so incredibly proud of them and honoured to be on this team."
Pavol Demitra, a crowd favourite as a member of the Vancouver Canucks, led the Slovak attack with a goal and two helpers. He is now first in Olympic scoring (10 points), and shares the tournament lead in assists (7) with Canada's Jonathan Toews. Marian Hossa added a goal and an assist, and Marian Gaborik had the other Slovak tally.
This was Finland's fifth Olympic medal since 1988. Finland has won a medal of some shade – though never gold – at four out of the last five Olympics. The Finns have also taken three World Championship bronzes in the 2000s (2000, 2006, 2008), and seem particularly proficient in third-place games.
"After the other night it would have been tough to go home in fourth place," said Jarkko Ruutu, alluding to the 6-1 semi-final loss to the Americans. "Fourth or eighth – it doesn't matter, but bronze really means something."
Instead of going to their backup goalies, as international teams often do in these games, both countries stuck with their starters. Finland's Miikka Kiprusoff rebounded from his horrific semi-final performance versus the Americans, where he allowed four goals on seven shots. Jaroslav Halak suited up again for Slovakia, which was outshot 33-22.
The fourth-place finish was Slovakia's best-ever in Olympic competition. It came fifth in Turin 2006. Slovakia's previous senior IIHF medals all came at World Championships: gold (2002), silver (2000), and bronze (2003).
Still, it was certainly disappointing for the Slovaks, who missed a chance to win their first Olympic medal. After beating Russia and Sweden and giving Canada a scare in the semi-finals, they head home empty-handed.
It was probably the final Olympic appearance for veteran stars on both sides: Slovakia's Demitra, Zigmund Palffy, Miroslav Satan, and Finland's Kiprusoff, Teemu Selänne, Saku Koivu, Ville Peltonen, and Jere Lehtinen, to name a few.
"I played my first national team game 23 years ago," noted Selänne, who also said this would likely be his last NHL season. "Five Olympics. Finishing with bronze is a dream come true. When you win the last game, it's absolutely huge. I really rank this very high. Any time you play against the best and can get this kind of medal, it's unbelievably huge."
Selänne also jovially noted that the bronze medal was "for sure the heaviest" medal in his collection, and that he'd be open to being "Jari Kurri's right-hand man" in retirement, but not a coach.
Although this game got off to a cautious start, there were highlights in the early going. Kiprusoff made some sharp saves during an early Slovak power play with Niklas Hagman off for holding. Miroslav Satan dazzled the crowd with a spin-around move while going one-on-one with Finnish defenceman Joni Pitkänen, but fired high and wide. Then Halak stymied Lehtinen from point-blank range in the slot.
Finland picked up the pace as time wore on, and Salo finally opened the scoring with the man advantage with 1:10 left in the first period. The Vancouver Canucks defenceman delighted the home crowd when he unleashed his trademark howitzer, which screamed over Halak's left arm. It was Salo's first goal of the Olympics.
The Finns continued to press in the first half of the second period, but it was Gaborik who tallied the power play equalizer for the Slovaks midway through the game. Showing superb patience, Demitra controlled the puck on the sideboards before sending a centering pass to Gaborik, who zinged a shot over Kiprusoff's right shoulder.
The Slovaks couldn't convert on a couple of odd-man rushes. But they capitalized on a brief 5-on-3 man advantage with 4:22 left in the second period when Hossa, standing at the edge of the crease, managed to kick the puck from his skate to stick and bang it in past Kiprusoff's left skate.
Two minutes later, Branko Radivojevic inadvertently whacked Olli Jokinen in the head with his stick and went off for a four-minute high-sticking penalty
Yet even shorthanded, the Slovaks found a way to take advantage. After a backward pass by Salo in the Slovak end went astray, Hossa burst down right wing on a 2-on-1 and fed the puck across to Demitra, who made no mistake, putting it in off Kiprusoff's right post for a 3-1 lead at 18:45.
The Slovaks seemed to be in control. But they ran into more penalty trouble in the third period, and this time the Finns made them pay. At the tail end of an extended man advantage, Kimmo Timonen's shot tipped twice en route to the net, going in off Hagman to make it 3-2 at 5:06.
The Finns were fired up now, and they struck quickly for the tying goal at 6:49 when Olli Jokinen wheeled into the high slot, taking a feed from Jarkko Ruutu and whipping it past Halak's blocker side.
Jokinen wasn't done. Taking a long pass from Joni Pitkänen, he split the Slovak defence on a power play solo rush and tucked a backhand neatly through Halak's legs to put Finland up 4-3 at 8:41.
Three Finnish goals in less than four minutes – it was a blow from which the stunned Slovaks couldn't recover.
"We didn't get it done in the third period," Palffy admitted. "We took some penalties and let them back in the game. It was very disappointing."
The Slovaks pulled out all the stops on a late penalty to Pitkänen, but Kiprusoff made a game-saving stop on Richard Zednik at the edge of the crease with a minute and a half. Twenty seconds later, Demitra nearly snuck one in with a sneaky slider from the line. Yet luck wasn't on Slovakia's side.
Filppula sealed the deal with an empty-netter with 11 seconds left.
"We have lots of character," said Peltonen. "We reminded each other to trust ourselves, trust our game. It was tough to play after yesterday, which was a total nightmare, but we pulled together."
Selänne ends his Olympic career as the all-time modern-day points leader (37), one ahead of Soviet great Valeri Kharlamov. However, Kharlamov is still the all-time assists leader (22), one ahead of Saku Koivu.
Retired Canadian great Mark Messier elicited both cheers and boos when he was shown on the big video screen. Messier will serve as Canada's GM at the 2010 IIHF World Championship in Germany. However, he was a longtime foe of the Canucks with the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, spoiled Vancouver's Stanley Cup hopes in the 1994 finals with the New York Rangers, and didn't lead the team to glory when he played here from 1997 to 2000.