"Going to the Olympic final is like a dream," said Manninen, one of 17 KHLers on the seasoned Finnish roster.
Coach Jukka Jalonen's troops will face the winner of the ROC-Sweden semi-final for international hockey's biggest prize on Sunday at Beijing's National Indoor Stadium.
"If you want to win these types of games, you have to defend and I think we did that extremely well," Jalonen said. "There was not very much room for the Slovak forwards. It’s one of our strengths, but we would have liked to play a little better offensively."
Shots favoured Slovakia 28-27 in the first semi-final. Both goalies were strong, but Slovakia's Patrik Rybar just made one more mistake than his Finnish counterpart Harri Sateri, who got his first Olympic shutout.
Harri Pesonen sealed the deal with an empty-netter with 39 seconds remaining.
The Finns, who won the 2019 Worlds and earned silver at the 2021 Worlds, own two Olympic silver medals (1988, 2006) and four bronze medals (1994, 1998, 2010, 2014). They're aiming for a happier result on Sunday than their 3-2 final loss to Sweden in 2006 on Nicklas Lidstrom's famous early third-period goal. (In 1988 in Calgary, the Olympic tournament featured a round-robin format.)
"It's a pretty special day," said Pesonen. "I knew coming into the Olympics that we'd have a good, solid team, a veteran team with a lot of experienced guys, but every tournament is a mystery [in terms of] how it goes and how it ends."
Despite the loss, the underdog Slovaks can be incredibly proud. Nobody foresaw the ninth-ranked team in the IIHF Men’s World Ranking cracking the final four in 2022. And coach Craig Ramsay's team still has a shot at Slovakia's first Olympic medal ever on Saturday.
"I am so sad right now, but we have to forget about this because we have our next game tomorrow and we have to take the [bronze] medal," said Rybar.
This was a grinding, defensive duel, which suited Finland well. However, the Slovaks battled hard until the bitter end. They showed the doubters that they weren't emotionally drained at this point in their Cinderella run. Slovakia was miles better than in its opening 6-2 loss to these same Finns.
Juraj Slafkovsky, the 17-year-old Slovak phenom who plays for TPS Turku in Finland, entered this semi-final with five goals, tied for the Olympic lead with Sweden’s Lucas Wallmark. Ramsay elevated Slafkovsky to the top line with captain Marek Hrivik and Peter Cehlarik, who scored the late equalizer and the shootout winner respectively in the 3-2 quarter-final win over the Americans.
"I think we had some offensive chances when we held the puck in their end," Slafkovsky said. "But you know, when luck isn’t on your side, like it was the last game, then it’s tough. Tomorrow, I hope we’ll have luck on our side."
The only pre-2022 Olympic game between these two nations with populations of approximately 5.5 million was Finland’s 5-3 victory in the 2010 bronze medal game. In Vancouver, Finland rallied from a 3-1 third-period deficit as Olli Jokinen scored the equalizer and the go-ahead goal and Valtteri Filppula – Finland’s Beijing captain – added an empty-netter. Slovakia’s fourth-place finish marked its Olympic peak.
Here, the gritty, veteran Finns bided their time, awaiting a Slovak error. Even though Slovakia generated some good pressure, Manninen found a chink in their armour at 15:58. With traffic in front, the diminutive, crafty centre tipped Petteri Lindbohm’s long shot and tucked the rebound underneath Rybar’s right pad for a 1-0 lead.
"We got a shot from the blueline, traffic in front of the net, a little tip and then there was a rebound, and that’s always a dangerous chance to score," Manninen said.
It was Manninen’s fourth goal of these Games. He's tied with linemate and Salavat Yulayev Ufa linemate Teemu Hartikainen for the team lead with seven points, and both are in contention for the tournament scoring title. Manninen also had a hat trick against Slovakia in the opener. At the 2019 Worlds, Manninen led the golden Finns in Bratislava with 11 points.
Early in the second period, Hrivik swooped in and had Sateri beaten when he went to the forehand, but put the puck off the side of the net. Slovakia fired shots at Sateri from all angles, but couldn't faze him.
"It was a tough battle but we did a great job as a team defending in the middle," said the Finnish goalie. "We kept them outside, so the guys helped me a lot today."
Careless, back-to-back tripping penalties by Peter Ceresnak and Pavol Regenda gave Finland a 5-on-3 man advantage for 1:13. But despite good Finnish offensive-zone possession, the Slovaks succeeded in killing it off. Rybar denied Manninen from the slot on Suomi's best chance.
At one point, a scrum along the boards behind the Slovak net wore for on for more than 30 seconds. Neither team was doing this the easy way.
Ramsay gave the Finns their due: "They clogged up the neutral zone and, more important, I think, was the play in their own end. We just had real trouble with them because they were so strong and so quick."
The third period started off with another ineffective Finnish power play, and Slafkovsky and Michal Kristof generated a 2-on-1 rush just before it expired, but couldn't cash in. Mid-period, a strong backcheck by 19-year-old Slovak defender Samuel Knazko (the World Junior captain in 2021 and 2022) disrupted Finnish veteran Leo Komarov's promising drive to the net.
The Finns withstood Slovakia's late push with veteran professionalism after Rybar was pulled with 1:38 left. Pesonen took no chances on his empty-net goal, steering the puck in from point-blank range.
"It wasn't the prettiest game today but we won it," said Finnish assistant captain Marko Anttila, who became a folk hero with his huge playoff goals in the 2019 gold-medal run.
"It is a tough pill to swallow," Hrivik said. "We had them under a lot of pressure but could not score."
After masterminding two IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship gold medals (2011, 2019) and a home-ice World Junior title (2016), Jalonen’s stature as the greatest Finnish coach ever is already sealed. If his squad triumphs in Beijing, this Finnish Hockey Hall of Famer indubitably belongs in the conversation with Canada’s Mike Babcock and the Soviet Union’s Viktor Tikhonov.
In Beijing, the Finnish women won bronze for the second straight Olympics with a 4-0 blanking of Switzerland. Now Finland's men are hungry to capture an even shinier medal.
"It's huge for everybody individually, as a team, and as a hockey country," Sateri said. "It is a big thing."
Slovakia owns four IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship medals all-time, including gold (2002), silver (2000, 2012), and bronze (2003). Winning any Olympic medal would send their fans into fits of joy in Bratislava and beyond. And that should give Ramsay's men motivation aplenty in the bronze game.
“It is a chance to showcase how Slovak hockey has moved forward," said Ramsay. "This is an opportunity to show the world who we are.”