January 02, 2012
CALGARY — Finland can finally say this is it what it wanted — a knockout game vs. Sweden.
Nothing brings out the best in the blue and white like the chance to put one over on its big brother, so-called. Come Wednesday, they'll get the opportunity in the world junior hockey championship semifinal.
"I think Sweden is the best country you can be playing against in this situation so I'm very happy to be playing against them," right wing Teemu Pulkinnen said after Finland advanced with an 8-5 win over Slovakia at Scotiabank Saddledome. "We will need to do everything better, of course. They [Slovakia] scored five goals today and if Sweden scores five goals tomorrow we will lose the game. The defence has to be better."
The Finns, led by Minnesota Wild first-round choice Mikael Granlund (three points Monday) and brother Markus (two goals), have put their 8-1 Boxing Day loss to Canada in the rearview mirror with four wins in a row. Sweden is also riding a four-game streak and will have the benefit of two days' rest.
"Sweden is a tough, tough opponent," said Finland right wing Joel Armia, the Buffalo Sabres first-rounder who got the game's first goal. "But we're playing our best and I think we're going to win the game."
It almost trivializes the Finland-Sweden rivalry in sports to liken it to Canada-USA. The latter only intensifies in hockey or in February every four years during the Winter Olympics. The former extends across almost the whole sports spectrum. It has been that way since well before Sweden tried to get Finland's greatest sports hero, distance runner Paavo Nurmi, declared ineligible from the 1932 Olympics.
"It's a big rivalry," said Mikael Granlund. "It's fun to play against Sweden and when we beat them even better. It's just what comes from history. It's just there."
Granlund, of course, helped Finland's senior team beat Sweden last spring to win the country's first world championship in 16 years. The team was feted with a public celebration that drew more than 100,000 people to the city square in Helsinki. Winning on Tuesday would not as massive, but it would be big enough.
"It's a huge, huge thing," coach Raimo Helminen said. "Same thing that you have with USA and Canada."
The way they've played and the terse post-game quotes suggest this could be a close contest on Tuesday. Both teams are deep up front; Finland's been getting scoring from much more than the Granlund-Granlund-Pulkkinen line.
"We need all four lines to finish our games," Pulkkinen said. "If you have only two lines scoring goals, that it's tough to keep it up for the whole tournament."
Jurco makes prediction
Sweden has been tighter defensively. Neither team's goaltender, Sweden's Johan Gustafsson or Finland's Sami Aittokallio, could be described as having a spectacular tournament.
"They're both fast and they all have good skills and it's hard to compare them," said Slovakia right wing Tomas Jurco, whose squad played both teams. "My guess would be Sweden will win 4-2, maybe, just a guess."
Along with the long hockey history between the two — much of which involved Finland finishing behind Sweden at various international tournaments — there's also shared history between players. Both captains, Granlund and Sweden's Johan Larsson, are Minnesota picks. You can bet there'll be some chirps between two.
"He [Larsson] is a good guy, that's all I can say," Granlund said, pulling his face into a taut smile. "I'm sorry, but I can't speak for the Swedes."
There is a delicate balance for Finland when it comes to Sweden. Helminen had an interesting answer when asked if it's a plus or minus to face the archrival in a one-and-done game."
"Both — it's both ways," he said. "You have to get the emotion into that game but you can't let it take you away."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: The Canadian Press).