Last time these Nordic rivals played each other at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was in 2013 when Tre Kronor won gold on home ice in Stockholm. Sweden's Gabriel Landeskog and Finland's Juuso Hietanen are back on this year's roster. Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images
Swedes and Finns confident before SF
Beside the Baltic Sea, only one hockey rivalry really counts. When Finland and Sweden face-off in Saturday evening’s semi-final, expect a battle.
After a group phase where both teams were beset with some indifferent results, things are starting to click. Sweden raised its game towards the end of the preliminary phase and delivered an assured performance to sink Switzerland 3-1 in Thursday’s quarter-final. Finland, after patchy performances in Paris, settled into life in Cologne and defeated a talented USA roster 2-0 with a characteristically tough performance. Now there’s confidence flowing on both sides.
The Swedes, hampered by a slow start to the tournament after losses against Russia and the USA in the first three games, are a team transformed by the recruitment of New York Rangers pair Henrik Lundqvist and Oscar Lindberg, plus Capitals star Nicklas Backstrom. Victor Hedman described their arrival as ‘huge’, adding: “These are world-class players, obviously top in their positions. They’re great leaders and great guys, and their performances show how important they are for us.”
Backstrom himself is full of confidence. “I’m feeling really optimistic,” he said. “Everyone believes in the locker room and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.
“Against the Finns, I’m going to expect discipline. They’ll maybe play pretty much the same as Switzerland in the neutral zone so we’ve got to make sure we play the same way. We’ve got to manage the puck, get it deep, work their D. That’s our key. We did that well in the last game and we’ve got to keep it going.”
Sweden isn’t the only team with star quality, though. Finnish forwards Mikko Rantanen and Sebastian Aho have 17 points between them here, with Rantanen breaking the deadlock in his team’s 2-0 quarter-final victory over the USA.
For Alexander Edler, stopping those two could be the key to the semi-final. “We’re going to take a look at them, see what their habits and tendencies are and see what we have to do to stopped those skilled players,” he said. “We’re expecting anything but a really tough, even game.”
Finland, meanwhile, also stuttered a little in the group phase. The country was beaten by France for the first time in its history, blew a 3-0 lead against the Czechs and lost heavily to Canada on its way to fourth place. But, come the quarter-final, the Leijonat did what it does best – a hugely disciplined performance to take down the USA 2-0 in Cologne.
Forward Oskar Osala felt that game was an illustration of Finnish hockey at its finest. “We were so disciplined, we only really took one penalty - the other call was a bit questionable - and our goalie was superb,” he said. “We played an excellent game and kept them to the outside.”
Now the Metallurg Magnitogorsk man is looking forward to renewing a familiar rivalry with Sweden. “We played them in our last exhibition game before this tournament, and we won it with a late goal, but we know we’ll have to do much better in the next game.”
For Joonas Kemppainen, scorer of Finland’s second goal against the USA, the tournament has been frustrating up to now – but the former Boston Bruin reckons his team is poised to come good at the right time.
“Up to now it’s been a bit of a roller-coaster, and our game against Canada at the end of the group phase was really bad,” he said. “But we’re getting it right. The quarter-final was our best game of the tournament. It was a hard game but we played a good 60 minutes and I think we deserved that win.”
The team is also content to be sneaking under the radar somewhat in this competition. While the likes of Switzerland and the USA exceeded expectations in the group stage only to crash out at the first playoff hurdle, Finland has quietly remained in contention.
“We’re in a good position,” Osala added. “We feel no pressure here. Whatever happens, we’ll play our hearts out and really, we’ve got nothing to lose.”