UFA – One of the most interesting statistical anomalies in international hockey is the all-time head-to-head World Junior record between Finland and Sweden, who renew hostilities on New Year’s Eve.
In senior IIHF competition, the Swedes hold a clear advantage.
In Olympic play, they’ve beaten Finland six times, tying three times and losing just twice. Most tellingly, Sweden has two Olympic gold medals to Finland’s zero.
At the IIHF World Championship, Tre Kronor’s record is 36 wins, 15 losses, and 12 ties. The Swedes boast eight world titles to Finland’s two.
But it’s a different story between these Nordic rivals at the IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship. The Finns enter the December 31 clash with Sweden in Ufa with a slight overall edge: 14 wins, 13 losses, and two ties.
Why do the Finns fare better against Sweden at this level? There are several possible explanations.
Swedish players have a reputation of taking long to mature fully. Look at stars like the Sedins, Daniel Alfredsson, or Johan Franzen, who have shone more brightly in their 30’s than they did in their teens and 20’s. Tommy Boustedt, who serves as the head of player development for all Swedish national teams, told IIHF.com earlier this year: “Traditionally, our junior system has been geared towards having the players fully developed when they are 22 or 23, and this is one reason why we always have performed better at the senior than on the junior level.”
Conversely, traditional Finnish hockey qualities like grit, tenacity, and physical play may pay greater dividends at the U20 level than in Olympic or World Championship play, where control, patience and technical excellence – Tre Kronor specialties, in other words – tend to carry the day.
Top-class Finnish goaltending sometimes leads to victory. A great example is Tuukka Rask’s performance in the 2006 World Junior quarter-final in Vancouver, where he posted 53 saves en route to a 1-0 overtime win over Sweden.
It’s also important to remember that Swedish junior hockey fell into an unproductive development cycle that emphasized systems over skill and initiative from about the late 1990’s to the mid-2000’s. During this period, the Finns dominated the rivalry. Finland beat Sweden six straight times between December 28, 1996 and January 2, 2006.
That said, the Swedes have won the last three encounters at the 2009, 2010, and 2012 tournaments, and have gone on to capture a medal in each instance.
Of course, both sides will strive to put history out of their minds as they write the latest chapter in the round-robin finale at Ufa’s Sports Palace.