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Sweden earns spot in gold-medal game, awaits winner of U.S.-Canada
SOCHI, Russia — They lost former MVP Henrik Sedin before the Olympics to a rib injury. They lost power forward Johan Franzen before the Games to a concussion. And they lost captain and star Henrik Zetterberg after their first game to a back injury.
Yet here the Swedes are, in the gold medal game, where they will face Canada.
“Defense wins championships,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said with a smile.
Sweden ground out a 2-1 victory over rival Finland in Friday’s first semifinal, thanks to strong penalty killing, good team defense, another big goal by Erik Karlsson and another stellar performance from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Sweden entered the tournament with arguably the best goalie in the world, and arguably the best defensive corps in the tournament. Throw in a few goals per game, and it’s been good enough to get Sweden the top seed and a berth in the final
“I think we have the squad for it, even though we lost a couple of guys,” Hawks defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “Swedes are good team players, and even though we have a lot of individuals that are really good, we focus on how we’re going to win games. And obviously we have the best goalie. That kind of sums it up.”
It wasn’t the prettiest game ever played — Finland, in particular, plays a cautious, defensive style. But things should pick up considerably in the gold-medal game against Canada. Hjalmarsson didn’t think the big ice would be a factor, saying that the Swedes have been “Americanized” from spending their careers on the smaller NHL rinks.
“It’s going to be a totally different style,” Hjalmarsson said. “Hopefully it’s more entertaining for the crowd to watch, too. And I think hopefully there’s going to be a lot of people watching around the world, and we can do good promotion for the game and play a good game for the crowd.”
The Swedes drew strength from a big kill of a 96-second, two-man advantage for Finland early on. The three Swedes on the ice knew each other well — Hjalmarsson, Oduya and Marcus Kruger. Sweden killed off three straight penalties in the first period, leaving Hjalmarsson “gassed” through much of the second period.
Finland got on board first, though, as Olli Jokinen scored at 6:17 of the second period. A one-goal deficit can be daunting against the lockdown Finns, but Loui Eriksson capped off a nifty passing play to tie it up five minutes later, and Karlsson scored his fourth goal of the playoffs on a power play five minutes after that. It proved to be the game-winner, as Sweden did its best Finland impression and ran out the clock, making a hard-luck loser out of Kari Lehtonen, starting in place of Tuukka Rask, who was sick.
Finland will play for bronze on Saturday against the United States.
“It’s very disappointing,” Finland’s Jussi Jokinen said. “These are the chances you don’t get too often. It’s four more years, and we don’t know if NHL players are there after these Olympics, so it’s a tough pill to swallow. Obviously, our goal was to win Olympic gold here and we came up short.”
Sweden, meanwhile, will play for a much bigger prize on Sunday afternoon.
“That’s obviously our goal coming over here,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s not very fun to play for the bronze medal, you want to be in the final, you want to play for the gold. We’ve accomplished that so far. We’re just going to relax and enjoy the game tonight here between the U.S. and Canada. I bet it’s going to be an unbelievable game to watch.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. They’re the top-seeded two teams, if you look at their rosters together. They’ve got a really, really deep team. But it’s just one game and if [Lundqvist] keeps playing like he does and we keep playing good in front of him, and the power play can continue to score, I think we’re going to be a dangerous team.”