QUEBEC CITY – In Saturday’s bronze medal game between Finland and Sweden, the deciding question will likely be a simple one: “Who wants it more?”
This isn’t just a classic hockey cliché. We’re dealing with two small (OK, Sweden’s nine million citizens versus Finland’s five million) Scandinavian nations that both have the potential to contend for gold, but also recognize that they don’t have the kind of deep player pool that should in theory make them a title contender each and every time out (like, say, Canada, the USA, and Russia).
So whenever Tre Kronor or the Finnish Lions gets a medal of whatever shade, it’s considered worthwhile, unlike in Canada, where the attitude is “gold or bust”.
Finnish coach Doug Shedden summed it up well after his team’s 4-0 semi-final loss to Russia: “It would be nice to get first or second, but since we’re in this position, we might as well get third. It would be very disappointing to not get something out of this.”
The most famous Finland-Sweden confrontations include the finals of the 1992 and 1998 IIHF World Championships and the 2006 Olympics, all of which ended in tears for Finland and triumph for Sweden.
Less well-remembered is the only bronze medal game between the two Nordic rivals. Staged in Gothenburg, Sweden on May 10, 2002, it epitomized the importance of “who wants it more?” The Finns built up an early 3-0 lead, but Sweden stormed back to win 5-3, paced by two Thomas Rhodin goals. Second-string netminder Stefan Liv, who started in place of Tommy Salo for this game, actually did figure skating leaps at centre ice in his joy over the victory afterwards.
And why were the Swedes so stoked about getting third place? They simply had to get something in front of their home fans at the Scandinavium after their infamous loss to Belarus in the quarter-finals of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Even though they’d failed again versus the Slovaks in a semi-final shootout here, bronze was a tiny slice of redemption.
So who wants it more this year?
It might be the Finns.
Teemu Selanne could be gearing up for the last game of his illustrious international career at age 37. Saku Koivu has already gone through a bitter disappointment after losing to Philadelphia in the playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens, who were supposed to contend for the Stanley Cup this year, and he’d surely like to end the year on a somewhat positive note. Both were blanked versus Russia, and that’s also a memory these veteran offensive leaders would like to erase.
Olli Jokinen, the man with 723 regular season NHL games and zero in the playoffs, has something to prove too. He was stopped by Henrik Lundqvist on the doorstep with seconds to go in Sweden’s 3-2 gold medal win in Turin.
With NHL stars like these on board, plus the fine goaltending of Niklas Backstrom, the Finns had legitimate hopes of going to the final for a second straight year, even with a less-than-renowned defence corps.
The Swedes, meanwhile, have surprised and impressed with their core group of Elitserien players. Linkoping’s Tony Martensson, a former Anaheim (Mighty) Duck, might have piqued the interest of NHL scouts again with his play at this tournament. Mattias Weinhandl leads the team with 13 points, and makes things happen every time he enters the offensive zone. The 27-year-old winger was also a member of that ’02 bronze-winning team, along with defenceman Magnus Johansson. (Olli Jokinen and Niko Kapanen were on the losing Finnish side.)
Incidentally, Jokinen may not get a chance to take a mini-revenge on Lundqvist, Sweden’s main marquee NHLer (apart from Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom), since bronze medal games are typically a backup goalie’s paradise. And yes, Stefan Liv has the job again with Sweden.
But the fundamental point is that Sweden seems disappointed (but not devastated) to have missed out on the gold medal game, because they’ve overachieved in the eyes of most.
However, the Finns are taking it a bit harder. Beating the Russians in Turin and Moscow made them believe they could do it again in Quebec City. At least Tre Kronor can look back at its unprecedented double-gold year of 2006 with satisfaction, whereas the Finns have nothing but pain and misery (i.e. a lot of near-misses) to reflect upon. Winning the 1995 gold medal in Stockholm was a long time ago. Just ask Saku Koivu and Ville Peltonen.
So even though the Swedes usually find some way to trip up their eastern neighbours, the Finns could find a way to break that trend on Saturday.
The Swedes are also on a two-game bronze losing streak, due to defeats by Russia in 2005 and 2007.
That said, these third-place games are unpredictable - except when bronze-hating Canada participates, of course. Often the result is dictated by whoever gets the fastest start. With Sweden and Finland both looking to secure some extra bragging rights over each other, it should be, at the very least, a more entertaining tilt than you’d expect from a different pairing of opponents.