IIHF WC: Rivals Finland, Sweden Go For Gold

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA - MAY 13: Patrik Berglund (C) of Sweden celebrate with his team mates after his scores his team's 5th goal during the IIHF World Championship semi final match between Czech Republic and Sweden at Orange Arena on May 13, 2011 in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)


Heading into the tournament, this wasn't the final people were predicting.  Even heading into the quarterfinals this famous geographic battle wasn't seen by too many as likely.  While both offered strong teams, neither team dazzled with star power, and neither team had reached the Finals of any major senior men's tournament in the past three years.  However, the two teams will finally meet for the first time in this tournament here, and the stakes are as always quite high.  The two countries are co-hosting the next two World Championships, and bragging rights will be much more significant as a result.  Oh yeah, and there's the whole winning gold thing:  Sweden has been empty handed since their double gold in 2006, where they won the Olympic gold...  over Finland.  Finland, meanwhile, have not won this tournament since back in 1995, when they were led by a highly touted young centre by the name of Saku Koivu, with linemates Jere Lehtinen and Ville Peltonen

Finland Fi_medium vs. Sweden Se_medium - 8:15 PM local, 2:15 PM EST

Finland's path to the gold medal game wasn't easy.  Placed in a group with the Czechs, Russians, and last year's 4th place finishers Germany, clawing their way to 2nd place in the qualification round was an accomplishment unto itself.  Goals weren't easy to come by either:  they need the shootout to beat Russia, Latvia, and Germany in those early rounds, and lost a tight 2-1 game to the Czechs in regulation.  However, the percentages seem to be balancing out for them in the playoffs:  they rallied to beat Norway in the quarterfinals, and they outlasted Russia in the semis.  They haven't been able to score early, but persistence has been paying off for the team. 

Sweden, on the other hand, have simply gotten better as the tournament has progressed.  Way back in the opener, the team lost in a shootout to Norway for the first time in modern history, but the team started to come together against the Americans, who they beat soundly 6-2 in a game that wasn't even that close.  The team did lose to Canada in a very even game, but when the chips were down they broke down the determined Germans in the quarters and the undefeated Czechs in the semifinals.  Patrik Berglund has been a nearly unstoppable force up front, leading the tournament in goals.  While on the back end, its been a combination of youth and savvy, unheralded vets that have stepped up even when one of the team's few NHLers, Nicklas Grossman, went down in the first game with an injury. 

The goaltending matchup puts the spotlight on two European stars in Petri Vehanen for Finland and Viktor Fästh for Sweden.  Both goalies could be in line for NHL contracts based on their play to date, although Vehanen probably has missed his window of opportunity on that front as he's now 33 years old. 

For me, the past couple of weeks have made me believe that this is Finland's tournament.  We've seen the emergence of Mikael Granlund, the international hockey world's brightest young star.  He could to this tournament what Saku Koivu was to 1995, and maybe more.  Saku's younger brother, Mikko Koivu, has been the team's workhorse, playing in every situation against the top players the rest of the world has to offer.  Sweden is younger, bigger, and a little deeper, but Finland's experience advantage could play a big role in this final. 

I'm picking Finland for their second ever gold medal.  But take it with a grain of salt:  heading into the quarters, I had the Czechs and Canadians battling it out for gold.  But since Sweden is wearing their yellow jerseys and Finland is wearing their blue, I think we can all agree that everyone wins today.

Join us in the comments during the game for discussion as well as updates.

BTW, congratulations to the Czech Republic on their bronze medal, defeating Russia 7-4 in the highest scoring medal game since the new format was introduced in 1992.

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