Finns, Swedes don't like each other
Longtime rivals meet after overcoming adversity early on
The Olympic hockey tournament has reached the semifinals and there are plenty of storylines to explore in each game.
What should fans look for when two bitter rivals from Scandinavia take the ice Friday morning?
We're glad you asked, because Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun have answers.
BURNSIDE: Well, my friend, with all the attention back home focused on the U.S. attempting to avenge its loss to Canada in the 2010 gold-medal game, there's another fascinating semifinal to consider here in Sochi. That would be a rematch of the 2006 gold-medal game, won by Sweden over Finland.
The two nations have a long history with each other. As Swedish defenseman Niklas Kronwall put it: "It goes way back, obviously. The two countries have always competed in everything; in sports in particular. I think it's hard for people outside to really understand what the rivalry is all about." And while the Swedes boast greater talent with stars Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Lundqvist, Erik Karlsson and Daniel Sedin, the Finns are not to be trifled with. Just ask Russia.
Adding a little spice to an already piquant Olympic stew, Swedish head coach Par Marts predicted Wednesday that the Russians would beat Finland. Oops.
Both teams have reached the semifinals despite injuries to top players and will try to impose drastically different styles on each other. The Finns, of course, play a more conservative, close-checking style, while the Swedes will be looking to create more offensively.
"Team Sweden, looking at them I don't think they've played their best hockey yet," longtime NHL defenseman Mattias Norstrom told ESPN.com Thursday. "They took a step in the right direction in the quarterfinals, especially getting some goals from some key players."
LEBRUN: Having covered several games between Sweden and Finland over the years, at the Olympics and the IIHF world championship, I'm not sure I can put into words what it means to these countries to beat each other. I'll never forget being at the worlds in Helsinki in 2003, when Finland coughed up a 5-1 lead in the semifinals and suffered a 6-5 loss to the hated Swedes.
I cannot tell you how many depressed faces I saw while walking around town that night. Finland took that loss as a national embarrassment, a kick to the shins by big brother Sweden. And three years later, the Finns lost to Sweden in the gold-medal game. You want to talk rivalry? Sheesh.
"It goes back years," said Sweden's Alex Steen. "It's not just hockey, but all different kinds of sporting events. As soon as the Swedes go against the Finns, everyone in both countries will be watching."
To Norstrom's point though, Scotty, I agree that we've yet to see Sweden's A-game, whereas Finland stepped up big time to knock off Russia. In the lead-up to that 2006 gold-medal game, there was similar talk about the Swedes, who had struggled in the preliminary round but saved their best for last. I suspect we'll see Sweden's best game tomorrow.
BURNSIDE: If we see Sweden's best game, that presumably means we'll see more scoring from Daniel Sedin, who ended a lengthy scoring drought (22 games, dating to the end of December in the NHL schedule) with a goal in Sweden's quarterfinal win over Slovenia. But if either team thinks it will roll up the score in this one, it clearly hasn't been paying attention to the performances of Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist and his Finnish counterpart Tuukka Rask, who was the key against Russia. Between them, Lundqvist and Rask have stopped 170 of 182 shots in this tournament, suggesting we're in for lots of highlights in net and a tight, low-scoring game.
LEBRUN: No question about the goaltending, Scotty. Top notch in this semifinal, perhaps the best goalie duel in the entire tournament. Another duel comes behind the bench. I've been impressed with the manner in which Finland's Westerlund has handled his bench and made up for the massive losses of Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov.
Then there's his Swedish counterpart. Marts is growing on me too, but for a different reason. I've never seen a coach take the bait when asked which team would win and advance to face his squad. An NHL coach wouldn't be caught dead predicting his next opponent. Marts gave the Finns some bulletin-board material and did not regret doing so when asked about it again Thursday.
"No. Why? I had a question and I answered it. It's that's simple," said Marts.
It's just that no other coach in the world would ever be that bluntly honest in that situation.
"I'm not like the other ones," he said. "I had a question and I answered it. That's my way." All right, then.
BURNSIDE: I think this game is going to be a dandy. Norstrom, who is doing analysis for a Swedish-based broadcaster, thinks that Lundqvist and former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson have been the Swedes' top players and that the team needs more production from its top two lines. That means Steen, Loui Eriksson and Nicklas Backstrom. But the guy I'm really looking forward to watching is Mikael Granlund of Team Finland.
When Barkov went down with an injury early in the tournament most folks, including me, figured the Finns' hopes for maybe any medal at all were lost. But Granlund, playing with Teemu Selanne and Jarkko Immonen, has elevated his game in a dramatic fashion. Granlund, one of the Minnesota Wild's top young players, was the catalyst in the victory over Russia, and if the gold-medal dream is to continue, Granlund will have to be at his best again.
LEBRUN: Scotty, how amazing would it be for Selanne not only to get a win over rival Sweden, but also to have a chance at a gold medal before his incredible career ends? Much time has been spent talking about Russia, Canada, the U.S. and Sweden, so how spectacular would it be for underdog Finland to ride in and steal the show with Selanne leading the way? There are few classier guys in the hockey world, his legacy and stamp on the game firmly entrenched.
If I were awarded the power of the hockey gods, I would make it so Selanne's send-off has a gold medal in it. There couldn't be a better story.
MORE OLYMPICS HEADLINES
- Durant, USA pull away from Spain to win gold
- Clippers' Paul has successful surgery on thumb
- Schmitt back to school after Olympic stardom
- Olympian Raisman, Poland Spring sign deal