Three keys for Finland, Sweden in Olympic semifinal
The rivalry between Finland and Sweden is commonly compared to one between a younger and older brother.
Except now, the younger brother has come of age.
No country can match the three Olympic medals Finland has won since NHL players were first included at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
One of those medals came at the 2006 Turin Olympics when Finland lost the gold-medal game 3-2 to big brother Sweden, but the Finns have grown up considerably since then.
"You know, I played them my first time in the World Championships in '95 in Sweden, and they ended up winning their first World Championship," Sweden forward Daniel Alfredsson said. "They've had tremendous success here in the Olympics, we've met them pretty much every time, and I don't think it's so much big brother, little brother any more. It's more healthy rivals that are very proud of their hockey team, and also really happy to represent their country. They know how much it means."
As if the game Friday between historic rivals in the Olympic semifinal (7 a.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN) featuring two of the world's best goalies in Sweden's Henrik Lundqvist and Finland's Tuukka Rask can take on more importance, it did when Sweden coach Par Marts inadvertently ramped it up.
Marts said following Sweden's 5-0 win in the quarterfinals against Slovenia that he believed Russia would beat Finland in the other quarterfinal Wednesday.
Considering the big brother, little brother dynamic at play between the two countries, Finland's victory against Russia was made that much sweeter by Marts' pregame comments, and he was asked about it repeatedly at practice Thursday.
"I don't know which one is the big brother," Marts said. "It seems like we are brothers, and we like to compete. We love each other, but not in the game."
Marts was asked specifically if Sweden drew the easier opponent out of the Russia-Finland quarterfinal.
"Who said that?" Marts asked. "No, they beat Russia, so obviously they're better than Russia."
If Marts' comments fired up Finland, it didn't show.
When Finland center Olli Jokinen was asked about Marts' prediction immediately after the win against Russia, he said simply, "I don't care."
In fact, Finland cares little about the other teams in these Olympics, because the country's national teams play the same way no matter the tournament, no matter the players on the team and no matter the opponent.
It is an identity that has been fostered over the years to match the national one; hard-working and team-first.
So when Finland forward Leo Komarov was asked Thursday which of Sweden's high-powered offensive stars his team would need to shut down, perhaps his answer was sincere.
Or perhaps it was a piece of gamesmanship in response to what Marts had said a day earlier.
"I don't know. Who is playing on their team?" Komarov said inquisitively. "[Nicklas] Backstrom? He's pretty good. Ummm, who else? [Daniel] Sedin is playing forward?
"I don't know their team."
Here are three keys Finland and Sweden will need to earn an opportunity for Olympic gold:
1. Stay the course
Finland has reached this point in the Olympic tournament despite missing its top four centers: Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild, Valtteri Filppula of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Saku Koivu of the Anaheim Ducks and Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers.
They have been replaced by Olli Jokinen of the Winnipeg Jets and three players who do not play in the NHL: Jarkko Immonen, Petri Kontiola and Jori Lehtera.
It would be hard to imagine any other team, with the possible exception of Canada, reaching the final four of this tournament while riding the fifth through eighth centers on the depth chart.
Finland has done it because the team has bought into what coach Erkka Westerlund is selling, playing a cohesive team game despite icing a lineup nearly split right down the middle with NHL players and European league players. There are 12 players who dress for Finland who play in the NHL and 10 who don't, yet these 22 are able to jump on the ice and frustrate teams into mistakes with a disciplined, trapping style that forces errors and capitalizes on them once they occur.
"It was a little bit question mark for me too, how we can combine these two different styles," Westerlund said. "I think it's also one strength of Finland, that we don't play similar as in National Hockey League. We can put different things together. We have different lines, some lines plays like in National Hockey League, some play a more European style."
One of the reasons why Westerlund has been able to make his team play so well together so quickly is that Finland's style of play remains consistent throughout its development system; these players have been playing the same way from the age of 16.
So when a tournament like the Olympics comes along, finding that groove they grew up with is made much easier.
"You come in here, it's funny, but you haven't seen some guys for a couple of years and there are some new faces, and you feel like you just talked to them yesterday," Carolina Hurricanes forward Tuomo Ruutu said. "We really enjoy each other a lot. That's pretty much it. It feels like a family."
Finland cannot stray from its selfless identity and get carried away with the size of the stage or the emotions of a heated rivalry. It needs to play, as Jokinen mentioned after the win against Russia, "Finland's way."
2. Maintain the balance
Something Westerlund has done masterfully through the tournament is manage his bench.
Through four games Finland does not have a single player averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game, and not one below 10 minutes per game.
His ability to roll four lines and four defense pairs has allowed some of his older players to conserve their energy, particularly Teemu Selanne, 43, who is averaging 13:37 of ice time per game while playing on the top line.
Westerlund did shorten his bench slightly against Russia, with forward Antti Pihlstrom playing a team-low 8:11, but Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta led the team at 19:54.
Over 60 minutes the bench management pays off, but Westerlund will have to resist the urge to abandon the strategy if Sweden jumps out to an early lead in the semifinal.
3. Stay out of the penalty box
Finland has done a good job of steering clear of the penalty box in the tournament thus far, allowing eight power-play opportunities in four games. But it also has the lowest penalty-killing efficiency in the tournament at 62.5 percent, allowing one power-play goal in three of its four games.
"You have to stay really disciplined in this tournament if you try to go all the way," Ruutu said. "We talk about it before every tournament, that's for sure. I would be really surprised that teams don't talk about it because nowadays it's such a big part of the game. You take some penalties and you might lose just because of that."
That's especially true against Sweden, which has the top power play in the tournament with six goals on 17 attempts, a lethal efficiency of 35.3 percent.
In two games against top opposition, Finland scored three goals against Russia and one against Canada. Considering its emphasis on trapping and countering, it would be surprising to see Finland pile up many goals on Sweden. So taking a penalty and allowing Erik Karlsson to go to work on the power play could mean the difference between playing for bronze or for gold on the weekend.
1. Complete the chemistry experiment
Finland was not the only team beset by injuries down the middle.
Sweden lost Vancouver Canucks center Henrik Sedin a week before the Olympics and Detroit Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg had to withdraw with a herniated disc in his back once here.
The loss of Sedin was particularly painful because it has a direct impact on his twin brother Daniel Sedin. For Marts, it was essentially as if he lost an entire line of forwards, because with both Sedins on the team he simply had to find a third forward to complete the pair. Instead, he had to find two forwards to match with Daniel.
The two he chose are Backstrom of the Washington Capitals and Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins, and the line remains a work in progress. The trio has combined for two goals in four games, which wouldn't be horrible over an 82-game season, but becomes a bit more glaring in a six-game tournament.
"I think it's been better and better as the tournament goes on," Backstrom said, "and hopefully we can improve even more for the next game."
2. Find a role for Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Ekman-Larsson arrived in Sochi primed to use the international stage to display what he has quietly been doing for the Phoenix Coyotes practically his entire career, developing into one of the NHL's top two-way defensemen in virtual anonymity in the desert.
The Olympics were supposed to be his time to shine.
It hasn't worked out that way.
He began the tournament paired with Karlsson on what looked to be a dynamic offensive pairing, and in Sweden's first game against the Czech Republic the two provided a glimpse of what they could do offensively.
On one occasion in that game, Ekman-Larsson and Karlsson were the first two Swedish players to cross the blue line of the Czech zone on a rush and they finished the game with four points; two goals for Karlsson, both assisted by Ekman-Larsson.
But when Alexander Edler finished serving his two-game suspension handed down by the International Ice Hockey Federation for an incident in last year's World Championship, he took the spot next to Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson took a spot on the bench.
After playing 18:13 and 16:32 in his first two games, Ekman-Larsson played 7:06 and 9:09 in his final two, the lowest among Sweden's defensemen on both occasions.
Following the first game where Ekman-Larsson's ice time was cut, a 5-3 win against Latvia in the preliminary round, associate coach Rikard Gronberg said there was another level the young defenseman had to reach with his game in order for him to effective.
"For sure he can step up," Gronberg said.
There would be no better time than Friday for Ekman-Larsson to do it.
3. Improve play at even strength
Sweden has scored 15 goals in the tournament, which is a great offensive output. Except six of those goals have come on the power play and four of those were scored in one game.
The high goal output is deceiving in a way because the offense has often come in spurts. Sweden was ahead 1-0 after two periods against Slovenia in the quarterfinals before scoring four unanswered goals in the third to blow the game open.
The Slovenians played a style similar to what Finland will likely use against Sweden, except the Finns are less likely to run out of gas in the third period.
Sweden has had question marks attached to each of its four wins in the tournament. In the 4-2 opening win against the Czech Republic, Sweden raced out to a 4-0 lead before letting up and allowing the Czechs back into the game. The 1-0 win against Switzerland came on a goal at 12:39 of the third period by Red Wings forward Daniel Alfredsson. In the win against Latvia, Martins Karsums had a breakaway midway through the third that would have tied the game 4-4 were it not for a tremendous save by Lundqvist. Then there was the game against Slovenia.
Sweden needs to find its game in time for the semifinal or else it could be Finland playing for gold Sunday.
"There's no doubt that we haven't played our best game yet," said Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who replaced Zetterberg as team captain. "At least that's how we feel. We've still got some left in the tank and we need to bring that out [Friday] to be able to have some success and come out on top."