Sweden gets redemption in perfect gold game
TORINO, Italy -- Somewhere in Sweden, an artist is trying to figure out how to get Niklaus Lidstrom and his now-historic slap shot onto a stamp.
And somewhere up in the stands at the Palasport Olimpico, a Finnish fan is still slumped over, sobbing into his Finland scarf, wondering how Henrik Lundqvist managed to get his stick on Olli Jokinen's shot in the dying seconds of the gold-medal game.
After a tournament that left many people wanting, with marquee countries like Canada, Russia and the Czech Republic underachieving and questions about the future of the NHL at the Olympics, the Torino Games finally got the game it deserved with Sunday's wildly entertaining 3-2 win by the Swedes over Finland.
Maybe the players were playing on fumes, this being their eighth game in 12 days. But they did not show it.
A classic? By any measure, yes.
It certainly is the kind of game that must be considered, recalled and held up for examination when the NHL and its players gather to pull the plug on NHL participation after the Vancouver Games in 2010.
Will the World Cup of Hockey ever replace the sight of Lundqvist standing outside his crease, seconds after his heroic, nay, historic save on Jokinen, stick forgotten on the ice, arms open wide to embrace not just his teammates, but their entire hockey-mad Scandinavian nation? The answer is quite simply, no.
"Just unbelievable," Lundqvist said. "I think I handled it OK. I didn't play as well as I could until the third period, when the only thing on my mind was to get the gold."
"I think it's been a long wait for Swedish hockey," added captain Mats Sundin, who motioned for a Swedish fan to come down to ice level so he could borrow his flag, draping it over his shoulders and those of his teammates.
Were there problems with this tournament?
Absolutely. The schedule was unmerciful and injuries to key players and the ongoing debate over the future of the NHL at the Olympics will continue to be a significant subtext to these Games.
But Sunday's game pushed all of that to the background and reconfirmed that whatever path the NHL and its players ultimately choose, there will never be anything like a gold-medal game.
The game began rather tentatively with the Finns following their established pattern of checking closely and being opportunistic, and when the first period ended, the Finns held a 1-0 lead after Kimmo Timonen's screen shot squeezed through Lundqvist during a Finnish power play.
But the second period opened up with the Swedes applying more pressure, forcing the Finns into penalties and back on their heels.
It was the first time the Finns had trailed since 8:25 into their third preliminary round game against the Czech Republic.
Less than two minutes later, the surprising Ville Peltonen, who finished the tournament with nine points, tied the game at 2, thanks to a great cross-ice pass from Jussi Jokinen. But just 10 seconds into the third, the Swedes would find just enough offense to send them to their second gold medal.
On the first rush of the period, with the teams playing 4-on-4, Peter Forsberg gained the zone, dropped the puck to Sundin, who quickly dropped the puck to Lidstrom, whose wicked, rising shot zipped over the right shoulder of tournament MVP, netminder Antero Niittymaki.
You could almost hear players on both benches -- oh my.
Canadians still talk about the seminal Wayne Gretzky-to-Mario Lemieux goal that ended the 1987 Canada Cup against the Russians.
In Sweden, this goal will likewise be revered, become mythical.
"What a shot. If that's not top corner, I don't know what is," said Daniel Sedin.
Four years ago, the Swedes were dispatched by Belarus in the quarterfinals in Salt Lake City. Four years before that, it was the Finns who sent them home without a medal. There have been similar missteps at the World Cup of Hockey and World Championships. Every disappointment became another burden for the Swedes to carry and to answer for. Lidstrom's goal banished that weight, and Sunday, in what will likely be the last Olympics for Forsberg, Sundin, Alfredsson and Lidstrom, they were able to walk free of those past failures.
"It's a nice relief," Sundin said. "We have known for some time that we've had a talented enough team to win gold. For us older players playing probably our last Olympics, it was great to put it all together.
"I think we've had a generation of players now for the last three Olympics that had expectations to win medals and we haven't delivered," Sundin said. "I think we're more experienced this time around and I think we learned from the other two tournaments and we learned that we've got to be the best at the end of the tournament. And this time around, we played better as the tournament went on."
Defenseman Kenny Jonsson, named the tournament's best defenseman on Sunday, said that he has been honored to play with the likes of Forsberg, Sundin and Lidstrom.
"These guys are the best players in the world. It can't get any better than this. It's tremendous. It's been a big thrill the whole tournament. Still walking on clouds here," added Jonsson, who was also part of the 1994 gold-medal effort and who gave up an NHL career to play in a second-tier league in his hometown.
As the game ended and the mob of yellow and blue jerseys moved as one, pushing the net against the end boards, the Finns watched, scattered at the opposite end of the rink. Jokinen sat on the open door to the bench.
Captain Saku Koivu lay down for a moment on the ice, staring up at the rafters.
While the Swedes were still celebrating, workers came onto the ice unrolling carpet for the medal ceremony, forcing the brokenhearted Finns back to their bench. A short while later the video scoreboard showed a Finnish fan sobbing uncontrollably in the stands.
"It's a proud moment, but also a tough one. There's moments like this in sport, where it's tough to see the positive at the moment," Koivu said.
The Finns had captured the imagination of the tournament. Decimated by injury and defections, they willed themselves to seven straight victories. But they could not will themselves to one more.
"Obviously, the silver medal's never going to turn into gold even if it's going to be a hundred years old," said Teemu Selanne, who was named by the international media to the tournament all-star team.
"I think this is going to feel a little better a little later, but right now, it's obviously very, very disappointing. This is the last chance for many of our guys to win something big and that's why it's very disappointing. All these years it has been very proud to put this jersey on and I think we deserved better than this. That's why it's so tough."
If this is indeed the end of the Olympic line for Forsberg et al, they will be warmed by the comfort of having gone out winners. The same cannot be said for Selanne, Koivu, Jere Lehtinen, longtime friends who have been playing on the same line internationally for a decade.
"We have played a long time together and it has always been a happy place for us," Selanne said. "All good things end someday and it could be the last big tournament to play together."
Back in 1994, the Swedes won their first and only Olympic gold. Peter Forsberg scored in a shootout over Canada and the moment was immortalized on a Swedish stamp. Who knows what awaits the Lidstrom goal. Let's just hope the hockey world remembers it before they decide to walk away from future gold-medal games.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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