MALMÖ – When you think about Finland facing a Swedish home team in IIHF play, it’s hard not to think about 1995. That’s particularly true at this year’s World Juniors.
You see, 1995 was the year when Ville Peltonen’s hat trick lifted the Finns to a 4-1 gold medal victory over Tre Kronor at Stockholm’s Globen Arena.
It was also the year when eight Finnish players in Saturday’s 5-1 semi-final win over Canada were born – including such go-to guys as starting netminder Juuse Saros and scoring forward Artturi Lehkonen.
Now, forget about whether this either a) makes you feel ancient or b) makes the kids in Sunday’s gold medal game seem like newborn children.
Is there some kind of synchronicity at play here?
Asked about the history-making moment when “Den Glider In”, the official ‘95 Swedish theme song, was adopted by Finnish fans as their own, Saros said: “We can take inspiration from that. We can see that it’s possible [to beat Sweden at home].”
Conversely, after eliminating Canada, Rasmus Ristolainen took the here-and-now approach: “I don’t think about what happened before. It’s tomorrow that matters, and I think we have to play better than today.”
That, of course, will be a tough trick after delivering what the big Buffalo Sabres defenceman described as “our best game of the tournament” against Canada.
This year, people are asking the same thing as they were in 1995: “Can the Finns actually pull it off?”
Historically speaking, the public expects Sweden to best Finland in international hockey. (When we say “the public”, that means Swedes, Finns, and anyone else with even a passing interest in the subject.)
Moments like Sweden’s 2006 3-2 Olympic final victory characterize the rivalry. Events like Finland’s 6-1 romp in the 2011 IIHF World Championship final stand out because they’re the exception to the rule.
(With that said, in the big picture, the Finns have the same number of World Junior titles as the Swedes overall. They won in 1987 and 1998, and Sweden prevailed in 1981 and 2012. And Sweden holds the narrowest of edges in the head-to-head record: 15 wins, two ties, and 14 losses.)
Based on how the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship has played out so far, the public is expecting Sweden to triumph again. The Swedes have powered their way to six straight regulation wins.
They have scoring throughout the lineup, and their NHLers, captain Filip Forsberg (Nashville) and linemate Elias Lindholm (Carolina), are on fire. Lindholm’s playmaking ability has, at times, been reminiscent of that of Henrik Sedin.
“That’s the type of player he is,” Forsberg said of Lindholm. “He always finds those almost impossible passes, and I’m just trying to be as ready as possible to shoot the puck all the time.”
The Swedes have a 30-8 goal difference, and they have scored a tournament-high 12 power play goals so far.
“We can’t take penalties,” said Ristolainen. “Sweden’s top forwards are very good. They score goals on the power play if you give them a chance. We have to play a pretty good defensive zone game and a full 60 minutes.”
As strongly as the Finns played in the semi-final, they were also facing a Canadian team that was atypically flat, slow, uncoordinated, and undisciplined.
Earlier, the Finns stumbled in their 4-3 shootout loss to Switzerland in group play, and had to rally from a 3-1 second-period deficit to trump the underdog Czechs 5-3 in the quarter-final.
Meanwhile, the Swedes have basically had their game in order since Day One. They may have taken a few more penalties than they’d have liked in the 6-0 quarter-final win over Slovakia and even the 2-1 semi-final win over Russia, but it didn’t wind up burning them.
Coach Rikard Grönborg’s players are confident, and they’re not shy about proclaiming it.
“I think no one can stop us,” said physical Swedish forward Anton Karlsson.
“We played Finland in the group,” said assistant captain Alexander Wennberg, referring to Sweden’s 4-2 win on December 28. “They’re a strong team. They’re good on the power play and have a lot of skilled players. But I think we showed in the group who was the better team, and hopefully...we have a great chance of winning.”
“It’d be huge to give back to these fans, because they’re just unreal,” said goalie Oscar Dansk, speaking of the 11,000-plus crowds that have packed Malmö Arena. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”
Dansk, who made one clutch save after another against the hungry Russians, boasts a save percentage of 93.5 and a goals-against average of 1.60. At these World Juniors, he ranks second only to Saros (94.2 and 1.53).
Defence may prove to be the key. The Finns can’t get into a run-and-gun style affair with Sweden, or they will pay the price – with all due respect to the top Finnish line of Lehkonen with captain Teuvo Teräväinen and Saku Mäenalanen, the tournament’s leading goal-scorer (6).
But if the Finns can take away time and space and limit Sweden’s speed through the neutral zone, they may have a chance.
“It’s going to be a full house with Swedish fans,” said Teräväinen, who is tied for the tournament points lead (12) with Forsberg. “We’ll just try to make them quiet.”
At least one Finnish player believes he has identified a chink in Sweden’s armour. Ristolainen said: “I think their defensive zone game is not that good. We have small, quick forwards there. We can keep the puck there and get scoring chances.”
It is the first time Sweden and Finland have ever squared off in a World Junior final. When the Swedes won their first-ever gold back in 1981, the Finns took silver, but that was long before the IIHF’s 1996 adoption of the playoff format.
Sweden, which is already the reigning senior IIHF World Champion, could win World Junior gold at home for the first time ever in its sixth try as the host nation. The Finns are hoping it’ll be a U20 version of 1995 all over again.
Let’s see whose dream comes true in the latest incarnation of the dream Nordic final.