February 26, 2006
TURIN, Italy (AP) - The three crowns on Sweden's hockey sweaters are said to represent three great kings. Try convincing any fan they don't stand for hockey royalty: Forsberg, Sundin and Lidstrom.
Sweden's three biggest stars came through in its biggest game ever, with Nicklas Lidstrom scoring the game-winning goal 10 seconds into the third period on assists by Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg as the Swedes beat rival Finland 3-2 Sunday for the Olympic men's hockey gold medal.
Three stars and three goals combined to make for one huge celebration in Sweden, which once again established its on-ice superiority over its smaller neighbor. Finland had been unbeaten in seven Olympic games in Turin, playing near-perfect hockey, but again couldn't beat the team it wants to beat most.
On Saturday, Finn general manager Jari Kurri joked it was like a little brother-big brother matchup. The only question was whether Finland could shake its little brother role. Again, it couldn't.
The game winner came so quickly in the third, Finn goalie Antero Niittymaki almost didn't react. Forsberg, playing despite a severe groin injury that kept him out of the Philadelphia Flyers' last eight games, grabbed the puck off the faceoff and fed ahead to Sundin, whose perfect-as-can-be drop pass to the blue line was one-timed by Lidstrom past Niittymaki.
Finland pressed and pressed for the tying goal after that, and nearly got it with 20 seconds remaining by Olli Jokinen. But Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist, made a series of big saves in outplaying fellow NHL rookie Niittymaki, who had shut out three of his previous five opponents.
After they won, the Swedes mobbed each other behind the Finn goal and Sundin and Forsberg grabbed Swedish flags and carried them around the ice, and Forsberg joyously tossed both gloves into the crowd. Several Swedish players cried during the medals ceremony.
Sweden's second gold medal in four Olympics - it also won on Forsberg's dramatic shootout goal against Canada in 1994 - more than made it for its dreadful loss to Belarus in the 2002 quarterfinals. One of the biggest upset losses in Olympics history eventually led to former coach Hardy Nilsson's firing and the hiring of coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, a former NHL defenseman.
Unlike Finland, which outscored its opponents by 27-5 while winning its first seven games, Sweden was far from perfect in Turin - losing to Russia 5-0 and also to Slovakia, when Gustafsson caused a major stir by suggesting his team might chose to lose to set up a more favorable quarterfinals game against Switzerland.
Sweden also won in what likely was the final Olympics appearance for its major stars, including Forsberg, Sundin and Lidstrom, so it was only fitting they all played a role in the decisive goal. Three Swedes played on both Olympic gold medal teams - Forsberg, Kenny Jonsson and Jorgen Jonsson.
Finland and Sweden have met in three world championship finals, the last eight years ago, but this was the first time the Nordic neighbors had played each other for an Olympic gold medal. That each was trying to win against its biggest rival only increased the pressure in a game that was expected to attract record TV audiences in each country.
This smaller-than-small country matchup probably didn't do much for NBC's Nielsen ratings - but the Nilsson ratings in Sweden no doubt were off the charts.
Sweden has been more dominant on the world stage than Finland, winning seven world titles to the Finns' one, and is 2-1 in world championship finals against its next-door neighbor - the country that, until 1809, was under Swedish rule. Even today, hundreds of thousands of Finns speak Swedish.
Finland, as it has consistently throughout the tournament, scored the opening goal - this time, on Kimmo Timonen's slap shot from the blue line that flew through traffic in front of the net and deflected off Lundqvist's skate and into the net.
But the Finns, mistake-free until Sunday, lost some of that defensive discipline while taking four consecutive penalties during one stretch of the second period.
Sweden took advantage by scoring twice, with both goals by Detroit Red Wings players: Henrik Zetterberg slightly less than five minutes into the period and Niklas Kronwall eight minutes later. Kronwall joined the team before Friday's semifinals to replace the injured Mattias Ohlund.
Finland tied it at the 15-minute mark when Jussi Jokinen threaded a beautiful backhand pass through the crease and between defenseman Lidstrom's legs directly onto Ville Peltonen's stick.