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Analysis: One wrong turn doomed Finland in semifinal

Friday, 02.21.2014 / 11:42 AM
Arpon Basu  - Managing Editor LNH.com

SOCHI -- The cruelty of a single-elimination tournament is that a single mistake can cost you a chance at history.

Finland's gold-medal drought will continue at the 2014 Sochi Olympics because center Jarkko Immonen turned his head for one second.

With the Olympic semifinal between Sweden and Finland tied 1-1 in the second period Friday, Winnipeg Jets center Olli Jokinen was called for tripping at 14:39.

It was Sweden's second, and as it turned out last, power play of the game, and Immonen was given a mission by Finland coach Erkka Westerlund.

Do not let Erik Karlsson out of your sight.

The Ottawa Senators defenseman almost has single-handedly made the Swedish power play the best in the Olympics, his point-shot blasts making Karlsson a threat to score at all times.

Immonen was on Karlsson like glue throughout the penalty kill, literally standing next to him to suffocate any chance of him shooting the puck.

Except as Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues controlled the puck near the side boards Immonen made the fatal error of sneaking a peek at the puck.

It lasted a second. Perhaps even less.

But just like that Karlsson was freed as he shifted toward the middle of the ice, took a pass from Steen and unleashed a rocket that went in off Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen's arm and in the net.

2-1 Sweden and their golden hopes live on; Finland is left to play for bronze.

"It feels really good obviously to be able to contribute with scoring goals and making the power play work," Karlsson said. "In short tournaments like this that is something you're going to need. We got two chances [Friday] and scored one goal, and it won us the game."

Another mistake by Finland allowed Sweden to tie the game 1-1 at 11:39 of the second when Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta lost the puck to Nicklas Backstrom deep in the Finnish zone. Moments later Loui Eriksson scored on his former Stars teammate Lehtonen.

Again a fleeting lapse in concentration, this time from a 19-year-old defenseman who's had an incredible tournament, using the Olympics almost like a personal coming-out party, and the momentum Finland had built by scoring the first goal was gone after 5:22 of playing with a lead.

"Turnover, lost a battle in the corner. Disappointing game," a despondent Maatta said. "You don't have a game with no mistakes; there's always mistakes in the game. I thought we had a really good chance to win the game. Just couldn't do it."

Finland surely would have sat on that one-goal lead the entire game if it came to it. But once that team has a lead it can wait for the opponent to start taking chances which leads to more mistakes, much like Finland did against Russia in the quarterfinals.

Except this time it was Finland that made the mistakes, and it is worth wondering if the fatal one made by Immonen on the penalty kill ever would have happened if the team was fully healthy.

Would Immonen even have been in that situation if Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild wasn't in North America due to an injury? Or if his older brother Saku Koivu wasn't practicing with the Anaheim Ducks preparing for a run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Or Valtteri Filppula of the Tampa Bay Lightning wasn't hurt? Would any of those centers have handled that situation any differently than Immonen did?

Would they have resisted the urge to look at that puck?

It's impossible to know and Finland can't waste time wondering about it because it has to prepare to play for the bronze medal Saturday. If Finland wins it will be its fourth medal in five Olympics involving NHL players.

None of them, though, have been gold.

Westerlund was asked Friday why that is the case, why Finland so consistently is on the Olympic podium but never on the top step.

"Little things," he said.

That was never truer than it was against Sweden.

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