More than a month ago, with Olympic rosters still in sight, the Sweden coach offered a candid assessment of an area whose fluidity and mystery has baffled men’s hockey executives around the world.
“Russia and Finland”, said Johan Garpenlov, “are strong”.
They played for the gold medal on Sunday, when Finland beat Russia, 2-1, in the final scheduled competition of the Beijing Games.
The Finns didn’t shy away from an aggressive attack on the ice at the National Indoor Stadium, where they more than doubled the Russians in shots in the first period.
Men’s Gold Medal Game
Russian Olympic Committee
The Russians still managed a lead at the exit of the first. But even as Finland’s pace trailed in the second, a goal leveled the score and the tournament entered its final regulation period with the game tied in a draw.
A third-period Finnish goal, however, proved decisive and left the final without some of the shootout drama that had peppered playoff games in Beijing.
Sunday’s contest capped an Olympic tournament stripped, for the second straight Games, of current NHL players, which left many rosters largely filled with players from colleges, European tours and other leagues less visible.
There have been surprises along the way. The United States, who sent their youngest team to the Games since 1994, stormed through the preliminary round and compiled a perfect record before losing to Slovakia in a quarter-final match that ended in a shooting. Slovakia won the bronze medal, their finest Olympic performance in men’s hockey, when they embarrassed Sweden, who nearly reached the gold medal game.
The tournament was much more suspenseful than the women’s competition, where Canada and the United States dominated, as usual and as expected. The Canadians won the gold medal when they beat the Americans on Thursday. Finland’s women’s team won bronze.
But in the men’s competition, the Russian team – officially competing under the name of the Russian Olympic Committee as a punishment for the country’s doping history – were a pre-tournament favourite, if flawed.
The Russians almost lost their first game in Beijing, a meeting with the Swiss. They then beat Denmark, making their first Olympic appearance in men’s hockey, by two goals. The Czech Republic team outlasted the Russians, 6-5, to complete the preliminary round.
They still earned a place in the quarter-finals, where they beat Denmark again, then survived a semi-final against Sweden on Friday night, when it took a 17-shot shootout to decide a winner.
The Finns had a slightly smoother run until Sunday’s encounter: they beat Slovakia in the preliminary round, where they also beat Latvia and edged Sweden, and eviscerated Switzerland in the quarter-finals. They beat the Slovak team closer in the semi-finals but advanced with far less of a fight than their Russian counterparts.
But it was the Russians who scored the first on Sunday. Mikhail Grigorenko, a forward who was part of Russia’s 2018 gold-medal team and a former NHLer, fired a shot to the net, where, with nearly 13 minutes left in the first, he beat Finland’s Harri Sateri.
The Finns tied the game at the start of the second, when Ville Pokka, a Finnish defender, fired a shot from the edge of the ice, just in front of his own bench and a few meters from the blue line. The puck went past a Finn, a Russian and Ivan Fedotov, the 25-year-old goaltender born in Finland but raised in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Fedotov opened the third period with more misery: at just 31 seconds, Hannes Bjorminen redeemed an earlier stint in the penalty box by firing a direct shot towards the Russian net.
When he entered, without much resistance from Fedotov, the Finnish delegation seated near the halfway line burst out and raised the nation’s flag.
Predictably, the Russians mounted a fearsome and desperate series of tries as the minutes ticked by the clock.
They killed a power play with just over six minutes to play, keeping them – and their own ambitions – just one shot away from the Finns.
But the goal horn no longer sounded. Finland, who first played Olympic hockey in 1952, would finally get their gold medal.
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Russian Olympic Committee
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