When it comes to European-based international hockey, the best rivalry could be the one between Sweden and Finland.
"It's a dream final for us, Finland and Sweden," Finland forward Henri Ikonen told reporters following his team’s 5-1 win against Canada on Saturday in the semifinals. "It's a great rivalry. Young players like ourselves can't imagine a better situation than that. Hopefully I can sleep well [Saturday]."
That acrimony will be at its highest level Sunday when the two countries play at Malmo Arena in Malmo, Sweden, in the gold-medal game of the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship (1 p.m. ET, NHLN-US). It will be preceded by the bronze-medal game between Canada and Russia (9 a.m. ET, NHLN-US).
Prior to the 2014 tournament, Sweden and Finland were thought to be going in very different directions at the elite international under-20 tournament.
This will be the third straight year Sweden, which beat Russia 2-1 on Saturday in the other semifinal, has played for the gold medal -- it won gold in 2012 -- and the seventh time in eight years the Swedes will earn a medal of some kind.
Finland, a favorite in 2013, finished seventh after missing the medal round and needing to survive the relegation pool. It hasn’t won a WJC medal since a bronze in 2006, hasn’t played in a WJC championship game since 2001 and last won gold in 1998.
That’s all distant history for the Finns now, who are led by their captain, Teuvo Teravainen, the 18th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. He had his first two goals of the tournament in the third period Saturday against Canada in the semifinals, scoring on a penalty shot and in the final minute, blasting one into an empty net.
He also assisted on Finland’s second goal and will enter the gold-medal game tied with Sweden captain Filip Forsberg for the tournament scoring lead with 12 points.
Teravainen also leads the tournament with 10 assists and a plus-8 rating.
It’s been far from a one-man operation for the Finns, however. They’ve gotten goals from 14 different skaters, including a tournament-high six from Saku Maenalanen, a 2013 fifth-round pick (No. 125) of the Nashville Predators.
Finland’s also gotten strong offensive contributions from its defense. Rasmus Ristolainen, the eighth pick of the 2013 draft who started the season with the Buffalo Sabres, scored his second goal of the tournament in the second period Saturday against Canada. Finland’s pairing of Ville Pokka, a New York Islanders prospect, and Esa Lindell, a Dallas Stars draft pick, have combined for two goals, six assists and a plus-7 rating.
The Finns also have had the best goaltending of the tournament. Juuse Saros, a Predators draft pick, tops all tournament goalies with a 1.53 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage; in five games he’s allowed seven goals on 114 shots.
Sweden also has gotten offense from all outposts, with 15 players scoring at least one goal and five with at least three. Forsberg’s four tops the team, with Andreas Johnson (Toronto Maple Leafs), Jacob de la Rose (Montreal Canadiens), Alexander Wennberg (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Andre Burakovsky (Washington Capitals) each scoring three.
Sweden also has NHL experience on its roster. Forsberg has one goal in 12 games with the Predators this season. His linemate, Elias Lindholm, has three goals and seven points in 21 games with the Carolina Hurricanes. Lindholm is second on Sweden with nine points in six WJC games.
And while Finland has gotten the best goaltending statistically, Sweden is right behind thanks to Oscar Dansk. The Columbus Blue Jackets' 2012 second-round pick (No. 31) is second to Saros with a 1.60 GAA and .935 save percentage. He also has one shutout.
Sweden has the chance to become the third team other than Canada to win the World Juniors as the host nation. The others to do so were Finland in 1998 and the Soviet Union in 1983.