In the game that’s likely to get far less coverage in North America than it will in Europe, geographical arch-rivals will battle it out in the Sweden v. Finland matchup.
This is a rivalry that dates back decades in sport, and even longer in culture, and we’ll get to see yet another chapter at 7:00AM, and it will be much closer than anybody predicted.
The Finns offer the most solid, consistent team game in the Olympics; to a man, each player has a role to play, and knows how to play it well. The ego has been checked at the door, and with few stars in the lineup, all have understood that the only way to topple the high-end talent that is present on the other rosters is to play a disciplined defensive structure game. It’s how they took out Russia, and it’s how they’re going to try to take out the Swedes on Friday.
If you think they remind you of a team that you’ve seen before, you wouldn’t be wrong. They play a game very similar to the New Jersey Devils system of yesteryear. Sure, they might not have a Niedermayer or a Stevens sitting on the blueline, but they’ve got a team approach that has been overwhelming for their superior opponents. Canada just managed to overcome it, and the overconfident Russians were lulled to sleep by it. If Sweden is not careful, they too might fall under the spell.
Sweden, on the other hand, has held serve this entire tournament. They came in the first seed; they’ve gone undefeated through the preliminaries, and dispatched all their opponents as expected. They’ve had a number of key injuries in their roster – Henrik Sedin, Johan Franzen, and Henrik Zetterberg – which has damaged their chances, but it sure doesn’t look that way where it matters – the scoreboard.
They have a very skilled and nimble forward group that have played often in the international game and understand its nuances very well. Their defense is fast and adaptive, and is second only to Canada in their two-way ability. And, when you’re able to beat them, you have to get around arguably the best goalie in the world, Henrik Lundqvist.
More important than the individual components, the Swedes will present a far more team-based game than the Russians did. They may have a number of superstars, but they play cohesively, and when the pressure mounts, they will not decompose into lone snipers. They will maintain their composure and strike back.
Just like in the other semifinal, neither team has played an opponent as good as the one they will face on Friday. This one will come down to the wire, and will probably be a more closely contested affair than the Vegas odds show.
I’ll speculate right now that the winning goal will come late in the third, after two and a half back-and-forth periods. In the end, though, Sweden will go forward to face the US in the gold medal match.
Keys to the Game
For Finland, more of the same. They’re not going to be able to stand and punch with the big boys of the Sweden, so they will have to assume the counterpunching position that served them so well against Russia. Collapse to the net, restrict shots to the perimeter (and away from the point wherever possible) and when you can, transition into a breakout and capitalize where you can.
If you are successful once, the overcompensation for the Swedes will lead to a breakdown defensively, allowing more opportunities to score. We saw it against Russia, and it could work well against Sweden. The Tre Kronor, however, will respond differently; rather than hopeless odd man rushes (1-on-3, 2-on-4, etc), the Swedes will activate their defense and strike back fiercely. The Finns need to prepare for that.
Tuukka Rask also needs to stand on his head (again). His performance against Russia was masterful; Finland needs another just like that.
From the Swedish side, patience will be key. Everybody who has watched any Finn game thus far knows their strategy, and they’ll dare you to beat them with it. The center is going to drop low in front of the net, and allow the shots to come from the half-boards. There will always be three men back – you’re not going to get any odd man rushes, and very few key opportunities. You need to bury the ones you do, because the Finns don’t give up many goals.
Focus on puck possession and cycling. Finland will take penalties in their own end if you play the right game, and their penalty kill will be of little help to them against the talented players of Sweden. Play your game, force them to come out of their comfort zone, and the game should be easily winnable.
Dan’s Guaranteed Prediction™: 3-2 Sweden