SOCHI – There have been plenty of surprising results at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but despite all the upsets it was the two countries with the deepest rosters that advanced to the gold-medal game.
Russia was a fascinating story because of the pressure of being at home. Finland became a great story because of the injuries it overcame. The United States picked the wrong time for a power outage.
But Canada and Sweden have been consistent in this tournament, and earned places in the final with strong defensive efforts Friday at Bolshoy Ice Dome.
"The Swedes are egoless," said Canada coach Mike Babcock, who coaches six players on Sweden's roster with the Detroit Red Wings. "They play well. They play structured. They don't give anything up for free. Their power play is very dangerous. It should be fun."
With apologies to Russia and the United States, Sweden has become the top challenger to Canada for hockey supremacy as the country continues to develop more and more talented, disciplined hockey players. Russia might have more high-end talent at forward and the United States more elite depth in goal, but the Swedes are churning out strong two-way players at every position.
Canada has built-in rivalries with Russia and the United States because of a shared history and geography. The final in Sochi could be the start of a new rivalry, especially if Sweden continues to produce the amount of high-caliber players it has on this roster.
"We've done a lot of good things, but we'll have to find another level here," Canada captain Sidney Crosby said of playing the Swedes. "I think we believe in our game and trust that if we play the right way and hopefully find another level in the final we will get what we want."
The Canadians and Swedes have not met in a best-on-best elimination game since the semifinals of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. There were the semifinals of the 1991 Canada Cup and the final of the 1984 Canada Cup as well. But Sweden was not the superpower it is today back then.
Canada and Sweden have only met twice in the previous four Olympics since the NHL began taking a recess to allow its players to participate, and both were early-round matches.
Sweden's most famous triumph against the Canadians did happen at the Olympics, when a young Peter Forsberg scored a shootout goal with a move that now bears his name and put his likeness on a postage stamp in the gold-medal game of the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.
A measure of Sweden's depth compared to the United States was on display Friday. The Swedes are short two world-class centers in Henrik Zetterberg and Henrik Sedin and a talented veteran forward in Johan Franzen, but they will play for a gold medal. Sweden also has one of the best young defensemen in the NHL in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, although coach Par Marts chose not play him a single shift against Finland.
In contrast, the Americans were the only team among the “big seven” countries to not have a single injury affect the roster selection process or the final roster submitted before the tournament started or any of the group stage games. When Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin missed the semifinal against Canada, replacement Justin Faulk played all of 1:15.
"The depth in our nation is really [good]," Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson said. "If you look at the players we have over [in North America] and the players we have all over Europe, it is really good lately. Even though we lost some players, we've had some other players step in and do a really good job. Everyone has really dedicated to what we need to do and here we are. There's only one more game to go."
The gold-medal game will be a new challenge for both teams. Sweden did not play Russia or the United States in this tournament, so Tre Konor's structure and discipline hasn't been tested by the challenges Canada present.
Conversely, the Canadians have struggled to score goals, but they haven't faced a defense corps and goaltending combo like what the Swedes will put on the ice Sunday.
"They're incredibly stingy defensively; they're hard to play against," Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene said. "They like to slow the game down, they like to re-group. They almost play the game like soccer on this big ice. It's a chess match, it's going to be a chess match. I have a great appreciation for Swedish hockey after playing in that league and playing against them last year in the [world championship] and other times."
Sweden's rise has been as meteoric as Russia's slide has been precipitous, and there has been plenty of evidence to see it coming in both the number of players selected in recent NHL Drafts as well as the number of players from each country currently playing in the League. The Swedes have also played for gold in the IIHF World Junior Championship for three straight seasons, collecting one gold and two silver medals.
The contest Sunday will feature the past two Olympic champions, as Canada tries to repeat and Sweden looks for a second gold in three tries. There's not a lot of history between the two countries at the game's highest level, but Bolshoy Ice Dome might be the start of hockey's new arms race.
"Sweden is a beautiful country and they've got good people," Babcock said. "My captain [Zetterberg] is from Sweden. It is unfortunate he's injured and not here. They are really good men on that team. We all know that I'd be cheering for them if they were playing against anybody but us. I'm excited for the opportunity to play against them."