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2006 OLYMPICS: Gold Medal Game Preview

Saturday, 02.25.2006 / 12:00 AM / News
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2006 OLYMPICS: Gold Medal Game Preview
Gold medal or bust for Finns, Swedes
By Phil Coffey | NHL.com

TORINO, Italy -- Expect full-throttle, pedal to the metal hockey Sunday (8 a.m. ET, CBC, NBC) when Finland and Sweden face off for the 2006 Olympic gold medal.

At this stage of the tournament, both clubs have played seven games in 11 days, so to get this far without leaving it all on the ice for the gold medal is unthinkable, especially for the Finns, who have never won Olympic gold. The closest they came was a silver medal in 1988. Finland also has won bronze in 1994 and 1998.

For the Swedes, their lone gold medal came in 1994 when Peter Forsberg's dramatic shootout goal clinched the championship against Canada. Sweden was ousted in the quarterfinals in Nagano in 1998 and suffered a stunning loss to Belarus in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City that still gnaws at the Swedish psyche.

Needless to say, both teams want it in a very big way.

"It is like little brother playing big brother and it brings a chill down your spine," said Finnish GM Jari Kurri, the Edmonton Oilers' Hall of Famer.

"This is my fourth Olympics, but first gold medal game," said Dallas Stars winger Jere Lehtinen, who has been terrific in the tournament with three goals and five assists in seven games. "It is going to be a huge deal for me after going through all those games at other Olympics and now finally having a final against Sweden. That is great. For these two weeks we have been playing here playing for our country and that is a big thing. The gold game is going to be a great experience."

"It's an awesome feeling," Mighty Duck Teemu Selanne said. "We've played so well in this tournament. Every player has played their part. That's the bottom line. It's great to be in the final, but we all know we have one game to go."

Forget bulletin board material, both clubs have been unfailingly polite when talking about one another. Here, the rivalry simmers beneath the surface, at least until the puck drops.

"They have a good team," Lehtinen says of Sweden. "They have lots of skills and it is going to be a huge game. We have to match them on all four lines. Their goalie is playing great and it is going to be hard. It is going to be a pretty good matchup, but we have showed so far that we can do it.

With solid team play and exceptional goaltending, Team Finland has yet to taste defeat in Torino.

"Every time we play against each other there is a great rivalry and that has been there for years. It is fun playing against them and it is going to be a good game. We know all their players, so we know it will be tough, but we will enjoy it also."

"We've had some great battles with Finland over the years, not just in hockey," Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said.

"Now we are going to play for the gold medal," Tampa Bay's Fredrik Modin said. "We have to prepare for that match."

No folks, no one is going to do a Mark Messier here and predict a victory. But there is pressure and expectation and a lot on the line for two countries who are staples on the international hockey circuit. Both bring compelling stories to the battle for the gold medal.

The Finns have been nothing short of brilliant in Torino. Arriving with a team missing its top choices in goal due to injury -- Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff and Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen - two NHL defensemen, Philadelphia's Joni Pitkanen and Colorado's Ossi Vaananen - plus three NHL forwards - Chicago's Tuomo Ruutu, Philadelphia's Sami Kapanen and Dallas' Antti Miettinen - Finland is undefeated headed into the gold medal game and has allowed only five goals in the entire tournament. The Finns have posted an incredible five shutouts in their seven games.

Preliminary-round competition saw the Finns blank Switzerland, 5-0, and Italy, 6-0, to start play. A 4-2 win over the Czech Republic followed and then a 2-0 decision over Canada. Germany was blanked 2-0, before Team USA gave the Finns their toughest game, a 4-3 win in the quarterfinals. Russia was shut out in the semifinals, 4-0.

"We have played our own game for the whole tournament and tried to enjoy the games and being here," Lehtinen said. "We have played good defense while we have been here. We started off well in the first game, even though it was tough because we had not had that much practice, but we showed we could play right away and that first game started it all for us. Since then, we have just tried to build our own game and play a tight game. For the whole tournament we have been building and building."

"No pressure; we play our own game," Vancouver's Jarkko Ruutu said. "We know how to play and we know we can win against anybody. We go with our game plan. That's the main reason for our success. Also, we have great goaltending."

Injuries also altered the Swedish roster a bit, with Flyers defenseman Kim Johnsson remaining home, as well as Vancouver center Markus Naslund. But for the core guys from Sweden, the loss to Belarus in 2002 remained a wound. In that game, one of infamy still in Sweden, goalie Tommy Salo misplayed a long shot and the Swedes lost out on a chance for a medal.

"There are some guys on this team that played in Salt Lake and they know what happened," Swedish coach Bengt Gustafsson said. "We can't change history, but we can make history and we're out to make it."

Stanley Cup winner Fredrik Modin now has a chance to add a gold medal to his trophy case.

"I feel very, very good," Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said. "This is something we have dreamed about. There are some of us here that were here in 1998 and in 2002 when we had the devastating loss (to Belarus). You don't get these chances often."

Lidstrom is one of the NHL's most successful players, having won three Stanley Cups with the Wings, so where would a gold medal rank?

"It would be right up there," he smiled.

Sweden exploded from the blocks in the preliminary round, blasting Kazakhstan, 7-2. But the Swedes took in on the chin in their second game, absorbing a 5-0 pasting from Russia. Following were 6-1 and 2-1 wins over Latvia and the United States respectively, and then a 3-0 loss to Slovakia in the final game of the preliminary round. In the quarterfinals, the Swedes ousted the Swiss 6-2, and then eliminated the Czechs in the semifinals, 7-3.

"There's a lot of pressure on us," Vancouver's Henrik Sedin said. "Back home, the media thinks that every time we play in a tournament we're supposed to win."

Now factor in the success of Sweden's women's team, which defeated the United States and won a silver medal, combined with the fact this is Sweden's most successful Winter Olympics ever, and the heat is on the men's team.

"We are happy for the women," Gustafsson said of the Swedish women's team that won a silver medal. "They had a great Olympics and, in fact, this is the best Winter Games for Sweden ever. And the Games are not done and we still have a chance to add to that medal total."

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