The United States and Canada are being showcased as the premier rivalry in Winter Olympic hockey, but the intensity and hatred between Sweden and Finland is just as strong.
The two Scandinavian nations will play Friday in the men’s semifinals in Sochi with a spot in the gold medal game at stake. It’s a rematch of the final at the 2006 Turin Games, where Sweden claimed its second Olympic title.
Each team has shown remarkable resiliency to overcome injuries to key players and reach the semifinals.
Sweden’s offense has impressed despite losing top center Henrik Zetterberg to injury in the preliminary round, and Finland has scored 18 goals (one less than tournament leaders Team USA) with its two best forwards (Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula) missing the Olympics entirely and No. 1 center Aleksander Barkov getting injured in the group stage.
Who has the edge in this matchup? Check out our in-depth preview below.
Sweden — Erik Karlsson
The former Norris Trophy winner leads all defensemen in Sochi with seven points (three goals, four assists). His playmaking ability, powerful shot from the point and smooth skating make him a valuable asset on the power play. Finland has to take away his time and space at the point or Karlsson will consistently create scoring chances and fire shots on Finnish goalie Tuukka Rask.
Finland — Mikael Granlund
The Minnesota Wild winger has enjoyed a breakout tournament and was among Finland’s best players in the quarterfinals. He scored a third-period insurance goal and assisted on the game-winning goal to help the Finns defeat Russia. Injuries to veterans have put Granlund on the top line alongside childhood hero Teemu Selanne, where he has tallied a team-leading three goals and 19 shots.
Granlund is difficult to defend because of his speed, acceleration and puck-handling skills. The 21-year-old forward protects the puck well despite a lack of size, and his tremendous vision allows him to create scoring chances with pinpoint passes. Granlund’s quick release and accurate wrist shot also give goaltenders trouble.
Top Storyline — Can Finland Shut Down A Talented, Four-Line Swedish Offense?
Finland does have some veteran savvy on its blue line, but two of its most important players — Olli Maatta and Sami Vatanen — are playing in their first Olympics with a combined 106 games of NHL experience.
Maatta got a team-high 19:44 of ice time Wednesday versus Russia and played well against the host nation’s top line of Alexander Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk. He needs a similarly strong performance to keep Rask from facing too many Grade A scoring chances.
Finland proved it could slow down a high-powered offense when it limited Canada to two goals in over 60 minutes during the preliminary round. The Finnish defensemen are not afraid of playing physical, blocking shots and playing the neutral zone trap to frustrate opponents. Expect the Finns to play the trap and put three or four players on the blue line whenever Sweden attempts to enter the attacking zone.
Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist is 4-0 with a .948 save percentage and a 1.25 goals against average in Sochi. He has made all the clutch saves when needed and owns gold medal-winning experience from the 2006 Olympics.
Rask arguably is the world’s best netminder, and he played his strongest game of the tournament in the quarterfinals versus Russia. He stopped 37 of 38 shots and made 14 saves in the third period.
This will be a low-scoring game and might come down to a shootout.
Sweden hasn’t played its best hockey yet and struggled to score at even strength through four games. Strong special teams, specifically an efficient power play, has carried the Swedes to this point. Finland has stayed out of the penalty box (tournament-low 18 PIM), and its penalty kill was exceptional against Russia. Playing the majority of this game 5-on-5 would be a huge advantage for the Finns.
Rask will outplay Lundqvist, and Finland will capitalize on mistakes to reach Sunday’s gold medal game.
Pick: Finland wins 2-1
Photo via Twitter/@DaleEArnold