The bronze medal often goes to the team which shows greater heart for battle after a semi-final defeat. Both Finland and the USA are keen to make it theirs.
After the emotionally draining experience of losing a tight semi-final to a local rival, both Finland and the USA have little time to pick up and prepare for Saturday’s bronze medal game.
At this level it might be one of the toughest asks in the sport: while the finalists advance on a wave of optimism and excitement, the beaten semi-finalists face a battle with their own despondency which is perhaps a greater test than their on-ice opponent.
For Finnish veteran Teemu Selanne, who seeks to join an elite club of just six players with four Olympic hockey medals, the pressure of recovering from a big, emotional game has already had an impact on this competition.
“I don’t know if the Russia game [a 3-1 quarter-final win] took a little extra energy from us,” he said after losing to Sweden in the semi. “I felt we were one step behind many times. It’s hard to swallow. But you’ve also got to give credit to them. They played well.”
It’s Selanne’s last chance to add to his record-breaking haul of 41 Olympic points, but the prospect of a medal remains the bigger prize.
“In hockey there are highs and lows, and hopefully tomorrow is going to be a high again,” he said. “Hopefully we can pull it out. It’ll be another challenge for us but getting a medal in this tournament is something you can always be very proud of.”
And that pride is why both teams are looking at the bigger picture to lift themselves for this evening’s showdown in Sochi. While ‘second is nowhere’ is a familiar motivational phrase, in the Olympics it’s a memorable achievement to take home any medal. But finishing fourth means languishing in the footnotes of hockey history.
That’s certainly something that motivates Finland’s Jussi Jokinen. The Finns have yet to win Olympic gold, but their consistency in recent years has seen them medal in four of the last five Games, and Jokinen knows what winning an Olympic medal means back home.
“It's tough to think about it now,” he said in the aftermath of Friday’s 1-2 reverse against the Swedes. “But it's a big deal in years to come whether you got a bronze medal or whether you have nothing to take home from here.”
In contrast to Finland’s consistency, an American victory would lay to rest a 42-year hoodoo. Sapporo 1972 was the last time a US team medalled in an Olympic tournament played outside of North America, bucking the odds to snatch silver behind the all-conquering Soviets. The class of 2014 arrived in Sochi with greater expectations than that team, and showed impressively goalscoring form before it was shut out by Canada in the semis.
US coach Dan Bylsma insisted that his team could still turn the tournament into a success despite losing 0-1 to Canada in its semi-final.
“We’re disappointed about that game, and perhaps we’re disappointed that it wasn’t the game for the gold medal,” he said after that loss. “But that’s got to be put behind us real quick. We will deal with that and come back to this building with much to play for.
“It’s the difference between going home with nothing or going home with a bronze medal. We’ll bounce back.”
U.S. forward David Backes admitted that anger and disappointment were his primary emotions following the Canada loss. “At the moment there’s a great conglomeration of both,” he said. “It’s a sick feeling that we didn’t get the job done tonight, but we still have a chance to make the trip worth it.
“It’s one more time to wear this red, white, and blue for our country and hopefully bring home some hardware and do it proud. That’s really what our sights are on now.”
Finland and the USA face off on Saturday at 7 pm local time (4 pm Central European Time) in Sochi’s Bolshoy Arena in the bronze medal game of the 2014 Winter Olympics.