- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
TORINO, Italy -- The Olympic gold-medal game that few predicted, pitting Finland against Sweden, will be more chess match than horse race.
With the Finns playing as close to perfect hockey as is humanly possible, the key seems to be in the Swedes' ability to match the Finns' patience and discipline, and the Finns' ability to keep their focus in the face of the most important hockey game in their nation's history.
"We've got to be smart. We can't turn the puck over," said Daniel Alfredsson, who leads the Swedes with 10 points in the Torino Games, one point off the tournament lead.
"We're going to play our game and we know they're going to play their game, and we'll have to wait and see what happens in the end," Swedish coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson said.
The Finns have certainly had the more difficult route in reaching the final, knocking off a pesky United States team 4-3 and then shutting down the powerful Russians 4-0 to maintain their unblemished record in the tournament. Are they due for a stumble? Gustafsson hopes so.
"They've played great the whole tournament and hopefully their days are over and ours is coming," he said.
The Swedes, meanwhile, seem to be building toward their best outing. They used a quick-strike offense to get defending world champion Czech Republic off its game early in the semifinals and would like to do the same Sunday.
The Finns have managed to start every game with an incredible level of energy. They have trailed only once in the tournament, briefly against the Czechs in a preliminary-round game. The power play has been outstanding and is producing at a phenomenal 33-percent clip (15 goals on 45 power-play opportunities).
"We have to stay out of the box as much as possible," Alfredsson said. When the Finns do draw the occasional penalty, they have the second-best penalty-killing unit in the Olympics, allowing just three power-play goals. Although expected to be a weak point, the Finns have received stellar netminding from Philadelphia Flyer Antero Niittymaki, who has three shutouts in the tournament.
The Swedes, meanwhile, are no slouches when it comes to special teams, either. They rank second with the man advantage (nine goals on 37 opportunities) and first in penalty killing, allowing only two power-play goals in seven games.
Although the Finns play a tenacious style, the Swedes have the personnel to play a little more physical, especially on the forecheck, which they used to their advantage in their semifinal victory over the Czechs.
The big line of Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin and Fredrik Modin created havoc on almost every shift in that game. The loss of Mattias Ohlund was a blow, but replacement Niklas Kronwall, the AHL's defenseman of the year in 2004-05 and a current member of the Detroit Red Wings, stepped in seamlessly in the win over the Czechs.
When you go 7-0 and give up five goals in the tournament, any discussion of flaws is really an exercise in nitpicking. But with the loss of Sami Salo, who missed the semifinal game against the Russians, the Finns' defense is just a little thinner. Salo was replaced by Finnish elite leaguer Lasse Kukkonen. Niittymaki has shown no sign that he's fazed by the pressure he's under, but this will be by far the biggest game of his career.
At the start of the tournament, the Swedes would have appeared to have a big edge in goaltending in this matchup, thanks to the presence of NHL rookie of the year candidate Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. But Lundqvist has had a few wobbly moments, moments he can't afford to have Sunday. The Finns have great secondary scoring in the form of Olli Jokinen and Ville Peltonen, and the Swedes' second tier of scorers, Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Mikael Samuelsson, who has only one goal in Torino, will have to answer the bell.
Why the Finns win
If they can maintain the momentum of the past few days and keep their focus, they will simply wear down the Swedes. Scoring early will put pressure on the Swedes and frustration could lead to penalties, which almost certainly will lead to Finland power-play goals. Niittymaki is on a rainbow and Lundqvist simply can't match him save for save.
Why the Swedes win
Scoring early is a must. Forcing the Finns to play from behind will mean a different mindset for a team that's had its way throughout the tournament. Disrupting the Finnish attack with a strong forecheck will be key to this. If Niittymaki finally falters and Lundqvist does a better job of controlling rebounds, the Swedes will win gold.
Swedes win a squeaker, in a shootout, 3-2.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.