Two Nordic Countries Battle in a Great Game

By Mark Weisenmiller

Finland played Sweden for the gold medal, for the first time in Winter Olympics history, on Sunday, February 26. Sweden defeated Finland,
3-2, in the men's hockey gold medal game, which was the last major event of the 2006 Winter Olympiad of Turin, Italy.

Those who saw the match in Turin's Palasportso Olympico venue saw a game that featured sterling defensive play, exciting offensive chances, and great goaltending from both Sweden 's Henrik Lundqvist and Finland 's Antero Niittymaiki (who was the most valuable player of the tournament). Overall, this was a much better gold medal game than its predecessor, when Canada beat the United States in the 2002 Winter Olympics.

This was the first time in Winter Olympics history that Finland ever got to the gold medal game and the Finns certainly gave it their best effort. Niittymaki made a big save early in the first period and then Sweden 's Niclas Havelid got the first penalty of the game.

Per-Johan Axelsson of Sweden got a golden opportunity for a goal when his team was short-handed, but Niittymaki made a good save. The Swedes killed the penalty and the pace of play continued very fast.

Saku Koivu, Team Finland 's captain, had a back-hand shot opportunity but Lundqvist made a save. Close checking by the Finns frustrated Team Sweden 's offensive chances. The first period was such a defensive struggle that at one point, seven minutes elapsed before a shot was taken.

When Finalnd had its second power-play, they made it count. The Finns now passed the puck expertly. Teemu Selanne ( who at 35 probably played in his last Olympics) passed the puck to team-mate Kimmo Timonen at the blue line. The latter shot the puck and Lundqvist made the initial save but the puck somehow squibbled through his leg pads into the net. Team Sweden 's captain Mats Sundin charged into Finland 's zone with the puck and tried a wrap-around shot but the Finnish goalie did not yield. At the end of the first period, Sweden 's (and the Detroit Red Wing's) Niklas Lidstrom took a good strong wrist shot on Niittymaki, who again made a key save. When the period ended, Sweden had 9 shots and Finland tallied seven. Finland 1, Sweden 0.

Niittymaki led Finland out of its dressing room for Period Two. When Finland 's Toni Lydman got called for a tripping penalty, Sweden 's Henrik Zetterberg took advantage. The latter got his third goal of the tournament, as he shot the puck between Niittymaki's legs for a goal. Then Finland got called for a penalty less than 20 seconds after the goal and Sweden again went on the power play. Sweden 's Tomas Holmstrom, Daniel Sedin, and Fredrik Modin all had good scoring chances against Niittymaki, but none of the shots got past Finland 's goaltender.  

Now Team Sweden put the pressure on Finland by dominating both the offensive and defensive sides of the game. The Swedes swarmed all over Finland and had the momentum of the game on their side. Koivu was found guilty of hooking by referee Paul Devorski of Canada and Niklas Kronwall of Sweden took a wrist shot from the point that got past Niittymaki. Sweden 2, Finland 1.

The Finns refused to quit. Ninety-six seconds later, Finland 's Ville Peltonen scored. When Havelid and Holmstrom of Sweden got called for hooking and interference penalties respectively, the momentum of the game seemed to shift to the Finns.

At the very end of Period Two, Lundqvist (the star goalie for the NHL's New York Rangers) made a great save to keep the score tied at two. Lundqvist's save was an omen of things to come for Finland .

Only ten seconds after the start of the third period, Lidstrom took one of his famous hard and accurate slap shots from the blue line. He has scored, on countless NHL goalies, with this form of shot and now he did so against Niittymaki. Sweden had a 3 to 2 lead and, as Finland was primarily a defensive-oriented team, one had the feeling that Finland 's chances of winning the game and the gold medal were kaput. Indeed, after Lidstrom's goal, this was the first time that the Finns trailed in the third period of a 2006 Winter Olympics game.

Sweden 's players knew that a one-goal lead in a game of this magnitude was shaky at best and then they got too aggressive. Daniel Alfredsson and Kronwall got called for penalties and Finland 's power-play unit ( which before this game had converted an astounding 16 of 47 such chances into goals) went to work. Yet they could not get their shots past Lundqvist.

Sweden then played puck control. At the eight minute mark of the last period, all five players (not counting the goalie) on the ice for Team Sweden were members of the Detroit Red Wings — a first for Winter Olympics men's hockey history. Lundqvist made a big save on Finland at the 10.30 mark of Period Three. Then Forsberg almost sealed the game for Sweden . He stole the puck from a Finn in their zone and took a big, booming slap shot on Niittymaki but again Niittymaki made a save.

Lundqvist made another hard save, this time on Finland 's Niklas Hagman (who had a great game) and the clocked ticked onward to Sweden 's conquest and Finland 's doom. The Finns put tremendous pressure on Lundqvist but could not score, as Niittymaki was pulled from the game and Team Finland added an extra player with 25 seconds left in regulation time.

During the flurry of play at the end of the game and with the numerous players in front of him, Center Ice still is not sure of how many saves Lundqvist made in the last 25 seconds of play. Two of these saves were magnificent but Lundqvist saved the best for the last — literally. In the last five seconds, he was spread-eagled on his stomach in front of his goal and somehow (don't ask us how; we're still trying to figure out how he did the following), Lundqvist went from his left to his right — while on his belly ! — and made a stick save on a shot by
Finland 's Jere Lehtinen just as the third period ended.

Team Sweden won and Lundqvist had won a gold medal during his birthday week; he turned 24 on Thursday, March 2nd. When Forsberg clinched Sweden's first men's Winter Olympics hockey gold medal in 1994 with a goal, young hockey players all over Sweden and Europe could be seen shortly afterwards wearing replicas of the yellow and blue Team Sweden's jerseys with Forsberg's name printed on the shirts backs. Now, in 2006, we should look for a younger generation of world-wide hockey fans again wearing copies of Team Sweden 's jerseys, but with Lundqvist's name on the shirts.



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