"It feels unbelievable," said Sakari Manninen, who led Finland in Olympic scoring with seven points. "There's so many feelings going on and you can't describe all of them, but the first ones are that it is amazing. We did the hard work and got this gold medal."
Just 31 seconds into the third period, the relentless veteran Finns pounced in the ROC zone. Assistant captain Marko Anttila, the giant hero of the 2019 IIHF World Championship gold medal run in Slovakia, accepted Atte Ohtamaa's pass from the left point, circled to the middle, and fired a shot that Bjorninen tipped past Russian starter Ivan Fedotov.
"We were talking after the second period that we needed more shots and traffic in front of their goalie, and this guy [motioning to Bjorninen] was there, so it was a good goal for us," Anttila said.
Even under the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic, Beijing’s National Indoor Stadium will always hold a special place in the hearts of Finnish hockey lovers. This gold medal has been nearly a century in the making. Finland joined the IIHF family in 1928, played its first World Championship in 1939 in Switzerland, and made its Olympic debut in 1952.
"It’s tough to find the words but we got what we came here for," said defenceman Sami Vatanen. "We battled hard and we got the first Olympic gold medal in Finnish ice hockey history. So it’s something special and nobody can ever take it away from us."
As widely predicted, this was a full-fledged defensive duel, fought in the trenches along the boards. Shots favoured the Finns 31-17.
Ville Pokka had the other goal for Finland, and Ohtamaa added two assists.
Mikhail Grigorenko replied for the ROC team.
"The game didn’t live up to our hopes," said ROC captain Vadim Shipachyov. "In the third period, we gave up a goal on the first shift, and after that it was hard to get through the Finnish defence. We tried to fight back, we got the puck to their zone. We waited for them to make a mistake, but they played with discipline."
Finland has finally cured its "close but no cigar" syndrome at the Olympics. In the 1988 tournament in Calgary, played under a round-robin format, the Finns edged the Soviet Union 2-1 to earn the silver medal. In 2006, Nicklas Lidstrom’s third-period goal and Henrik Lundqvist’s last-minute save on Olli Jokinen gave Sweden a 3-2 final victory and the Finns went home with silver. The Finns also own four Olympic bronze medals (1994, 1998, 2010, 2014).
It was the second consecutive Olympic final appearance for a Russian squad, although this time they settled for silver under rookie head coach Alexei Zhamnov. In the 2018 gold medal game in PyeongChang, the Olympic Athletes from Russia defeated Germany 4-3 in overtime on Kirill Kaprizov’s goal.
In 1992, the Commonwealth of Independent States captured the gold medal in Albertville. Prior to that, the Soviet Union captured seven Olympic gold medals. No team under the Russian flag has ever won Olympic gold.
Zhamnov gave the Finns credit: "I’m not surprised about the game. They had the most aggressive game at this tournament. Their style hasn’t changed. They identify the mistakes of the opponents and capitalize on them. We were not aggressive enough, thus the result."
This is the ultimate feather in Jalonen's cap. The 58-year-old Riihimaki native led the Finns to their second and third IIHF World Championship titles of all time in 2011 and 2019, and added a silver medal at last year's Worlds in Riga. He also masterminded a World Junior crown in Helsinki in 2016. And Jalonen, who was behind the bench for the 2010 bronze medal in Vancouver, now owns an Olympic gold medal.
"The numbers speak for themselves," said Finnish captain Valtteri Filppula. "They’re impressive. He’s built a system that is working. He has a lot of experience. He kept us calm and believing in the system."
There was little to choose between Finnish starting goalie Harri Sateri and ROC's Fedotov. Sateri had an excellent tournament, swapping roles with Jussi Olkinuora, whom he backed up last year in Riga. Despite losing in the final, the towering Fedotov made a name for himself in his IIHF debut at age 25, playing every game in Beijing.
"He’s been incredible, our best player for sure," Grigorenko said of Fedotov. "Probably nobody on our team deserved gold more than him. But it’s a team sport and I guess we didn’t play well enough in front of him."
Arguably, these two teams entered the Games as co-favourites for men’s gold, and it was fitting they fought it out in the end. Neither side boasted its biggest superstars. Filppula, who dominated on faceoffs in Beijing, was the best-known ex-NHLer with a Stanley Cup ring from the 2008 Detroit Red Wings and 1,056 career NHL games.
This was a battle of wits and grit between familiar foes. Not only do 17 Finns on the Beijing roster play in the KHL, but Jalonen also coached both Shipachyov and now-ROC GM Ilya Kovalchuk with SKA St. Petersburg in 2013-14.
"We got to this final and it is already an accomplishment if you are playing in the final," said ROC assistant captain Yegor Yakovlev. "With one goal, it is hard to win. That is a fact."
After a grinding start, the Finns got aggressive in the ROC zone. Bjorninen got two cracks at the puck right in front, forcing Fedotov to be sharp. But then the versatile, mustachioed Jokerit forward, who previously captained Lahti Pelicans, was sent to the sin bin for high-sticking Yakovlev behind the goal line at 6:59.
Just 18 seconds later, ROC cashed in with their first man advantage. Grigorenko waltzed into the right faceoff circle, scoped out the situation, and zipped a blocker-side shot past Sateri with Pavel Karnaukhov providing the screen.
It was the first goal and point of these Olympics for Grigorenko, a CSKA Moscow veteran who spent last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets. It came on just ROC’s second shot of the game. Nikita Gusev, who had four points in OAR’s 2018 triumph over Germany, got his tournament-leading sixth assist on the play.
After ROC’s Damir Sharipzyanov was penalized for a huge cross-check on Leo Komarov, the Finns exerted good pressure with their first power play, but couldn’t find the range.
Finland outshot their opponents 15-6 in the first period, with ROC vying to clog up the neutral zone in a reversal of these teams’ usual roles. Bjorninen had a great chance on a give-and-go with Saku Maenalanen just before the buzzer but couldn’t convert.
"Even when [ROC] scored, everybody was just calm," Manninen said. "You could feel it on the bench. Everybody was like, 'Don't panic, we will score, and we will win this game.' And that's what happened."
In the second period, the Finns stayed gritty on the forecheck, and Pokka notched the equalizer with a drifting shot from the right point through traffic that dipped and fooled Fedotov at 3:28. Bjorninen atoned for his earlier errors with a nice backhanded pass to set it up.
"We talked about how we need to get shots through and guys in front of the net," said Pokka. "I don’t score too many goals, but I was super pumped that I scored in an Olympic final and tied the game."
It was Pokka's first goal ever in senior IIHF competition. The defensive-minded Avangard Omsk blueliner played 28 Worlds games prior to his Olympic debut in Beijing.
More Finnish pressure followed when Kirill Semyonov was dinged for an undisciplined elbow on Valtteri Kemilainen. But the Russians were as ferocious in their shot-blocking as the Finns were at firing the puck. The trend continued at even strength.
The best second-period ROC chance saw Arseni Gritsyuk, the semi-final shootout hero against Sweden, navigating into the slot surrounded by Suomi sweaters and pivoting to zing a shot just past Sateri's right post.
After Bjorninen's third-period go-ahead marker, Finland had to tap into its reserves of sisu (Finnish for "grit") as the Russians attacked Sateri's crease vigorously. Fedotov made a couple of great saves off Maenalanen from the slot to keep it a one-goal game.
Filppula hailed the way Anttila stepped up with gold on the line: "The bigger the game, the bigger he plays. He’s a great teammate all around. He’s big when it matters."
The Finns did everything but score during a power play with less than nine minutes left in regulation after Sergei Andronov tripped up Anttila. Shortly afterwards, veteran defenceman Juuso Hietanen rang one off the cross bar on the rush. Zhamnov pulled Fedotov late for the extra attacker, but his troops couldn't get anything going, and the Finns went wild with joy at the final horn.
"We played against a very tough Russian team and controlled the game almost all the time," Jalonen said. "They didn’t have many scoring chances and our goalie was excellent in the net. I’m happy for the Finnish people."
Finnish supporters revere their first World Championship title from 1995, which featured a 4-1 gold medal win over Sweden and a top line of Saku Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, and Ville Peltonen. It's hard to imagine just how much they'll celebrate this Winter Games gold, both now and in the future. With or without NHLers participating, it's a crowning glory.
Finland only beat the Soviet Union once (1988) in seven Olympics meetings dating back to 1960. In the post-Soviet era, Finland’s record against Russian squads stands at six wins and three losses. The Finns have now won the last four Olympic meetings. The last one was the famous 3-1 quarter-final victory in Sochi.
Sunday was an historic day all around, as Slovakia also won its first Olympic medal, shutting out Sweden 4-0 in the bronze game.
The Finns head into the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Tampere and Helsinki with hopes of becoming the second team ever to win the Olympics and Worlds in the same year and the first to complete the feat on home ice. Sweden is the only nation to "do the double" before, in Turin and Riga in 2006.