Sweden came close to claiming that shoot-out verdict. Lucas Wallmark and Joakim Nordstrom both managed to get the better of their CSKA Moscow clubmate Ivan Fedotov in the ROC net, meaning Yegor Yakovlev had to score to keep the defending champion in the tournament. The 2018 gold medallist did just that, and in sudden death Gritsyuk stepped up after two failures from Nikita Gusev. The Avangard Omsk youngster fired in off the post to give his team the verdict and send it to back-to-back Olympic finals for the first time since the Soviet era.
“I was to blame for the first goal, I lost the puck in their zone and then lost their player behind me," said Gritsyuk. "In my heart, I felt like my mistake had hurt the whole team and I really wanted to put it right. I’m happy that Vanya Fedotov played so well and got us to the shoot-out.
"When it came to my turn, I went out and knew straight away what I was going to do – and you saw the result. If you keep turning over your shots in your thoughts, you can lose your head.”
Many head coaches would rely on experience in such circumstances, but Alexei Zhamnov never doubted that Gritsyuk could do it. “It was a collective decision,” he said. “Of course I understood the risk, and I took responsibility as the head coach.
"But we drew our conclusions from what we saw in practice, who looked good on penalty shots. We know who can score and who can’t. We thought that against the Swedish goalie this might work, and it did.”
And the youngster added that it wasn't hard to keep his hands from trembling, pointing out that Yakovlev's do-or-die attempt came under far greater pressure. "I love penalty shots, I take a lot of them," he added. "I treat it like a one-on-one game, just me and the goalie. One of us wins, one of us loses."
Yakovlev himself credited his psychologist with an assist on his shoot-out success. "To be honest, I don't understand how I kept my nerves in check," he said. "I just went out and took a shot. Thanks to my sports psychologist!"
Team ROC goes on to face Finland on Sunday for gold; Sweden must try to recover in time for Saturday’s bronze-medal game against Slovakia.
Captain Anton Lander was succinct. "It sucks, it really sucks. Right now, it sucks."
His fellow forward Wallmark had more to say. "It was a tight game but I still think there were some scoring chances there," he said. "It was two good teams and it sucks to lose it like that.
"I think both teams were playing their own systems and didn’t give up that many chances, but we had a couple and a chance to win the game and when there aren’t many, you have to take advantage of them."
There were few changes from the quarter-final line-ups. Sweden put forward Gustav Rydahl onto the fourth line in place of defenceman Linus Hultstrom. Team ROC scratched Stanislav Galiev, with Kirill Semyonov taking his place alongside Vadim Shipachyov and Andrei Chibisov on the first line. Artur Kayumov returned to the team on the fourth.
Prior to the game, both teams promised a hard-fought battle with the emphasis on minimizing defensive errors and ensuring that nobody left the ice with any regrets. As a consequence, scoring chances were at a premium throughout this semi-final clash. There was particular attention for Wallmark, the CSKA Moscow forward who had scored in every game in Beijing so far. His KHL clubmate Fedotov snapped that streak and the Swedish sniper’s shoot-out tally was not enough for the Tre Kronor.
Team ROC shaded the opening stages, with Anton Slepyshev getting on a break down the left and firing in an angled shot that Johansson turned around the corner. However, that early momentum was disrupted by Andrei Chibisov’s offensive zone trip on Nordstrom which gave the Swedes the first power play of the game.
That two-minute spell offered little evidence of Swedish attacking prowess and the next big opportunity came when Chibisov jumped out of the box to get clear and test Johansson once again. For the most part, though, it was more about energy than creativity in the first 10 minutes.
Sweden came close to grabbing the lead in the 12th minute when a Lukas Bengtsson point shot came through traffic and took a deflection onto the post with Fedotov beaten. Max Friberg and Alexander Nikishin were battling on the slot for the vital touch, and the ROC goalie was grateful to hear the ‘ding’ of rubber on iron. The Tre Kronor had another good chance when an ROC attack broke down. Theodor Lennstrom led a two-on-one rush but Fredrick Olofsson’s shot went straight to Fedotov’s glove.
Team ROC ended the first period on a high, with Slava Voinov firing in a testing shot that caused confusion on the Swedish crease. And the men in red maintained that momentum through the intermission, returning to the game to open the scoring 15 seconds after the break.
As in the opening stages of the first period, it was Slepyshev collecting Pavel Karnaukhov’s long pass and moving down the left-hand channel. This time, the CSKA Moscow forward beat Christian Folin and walked to the net, where he executed a neat little backhand-forehand shuffle to beat Johansson at last. That was the first time Sweden had fallen behind in regulation time action here in Beijing.
Subsequently, Team ROC concentrated on further tightening its defensive effort and Sweden was limited to a few half chances as it looked to get back into the game. There was an anxious moment for Fedotov when Carl Klingberg went around the back and slung the puck right across the paint, but Mathieu Brome could not steer it home at the back door. However, for the most part, Alexei Zhamnov’s team did a good job of closing down the play and protecting its lead.
The Swedes are at their most dangerous when the defence is able to link up with the forwards. Going into the semi-final, Jonathan Pudas and Henrik Tommernes were among the team’s leading playmakers. And it was those two who combined to deliver the tying goal in the 47th minute. Pudas fired in a point shot that Tommernes redirected into Fedotov’s pads from close range. As the puck bounced free, Lander reacted first and the Swedish captain gleefully slotted home a vital goal.
"I think we played a good game," said defeated coach Johan Garpenlov. "We’re happy with the way we played, we felt we were better during the game, we had more chances but we didn’t find a way to score than one goal. Then again, [ROC] is good defensively and have lots of gifted players, and they found a way.
"I thought we had a few [chances] there, especially in the third period but we didn’t score. That’s the way it goes sometimes."
Now, discipline was crucial for both teams. Chances were even harder to come by and the puck spent much time up against the boards, attended by a scrum of players battling for every inch of the ice. As time ticked down, it became clear that either a moment of brilliance or an unexpected individual error was the most likely source of a winning goal in regulation. Shipachyov came close to delivering the former, bursting through on his own to force a big pad save from Johansson.
Team ROC has faced criticism at home for a lack of invention on offence and it's fair to say that the class of 2022 is some way from the swashbuckling teams of old. However, defenceman Nikita Nesterov is more than happy with performances at both ends of the ice.
"It was a good game," he said. "We played our game. I wouldn’t say we are just a defensive team. We play aggressive but we need to score more. Every game we’ve played better and we hope our best game will be the final."
Overtime followed and Sweden was first to show with Lander carving out the first opening of the extras. Then Karnaukhov crashed the net - literally - as he bore down on Johansson at high speed, slamming his whole 96kg frame into the goal but leaving the puck behind.
The biggest chance of the extras went to Sweden. Only a stick thrust out at the vital moment by Vladimr Tkachyov prevented Brome from shooting at an open net as Fedotov got caught out of position by a swift raid on his goal.
Tkachyov later missed in the shoot-out, but Gritsyuk’s winner ensured he got full value for that brave defensive play. And ROC captain Shipachyov paid tribute to the youngster. "Even before the Olympics, I said that he was ready," Shipachyov said. "Clearly, the kid has no nerves."