CALGARY — It's one of hockey's best, most intense international rivalries, and it will play out Tuesday at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
In Helsinki, fans talk about games against Sweden the way fans here talk about games against the U.S. or Russia — holy wars on ice, games that can cause national depression when your team loses.
But there’s more than national pride on the line when the Finns and Swedes renew acquaintances — there’s also a berth in Thursday night’s IIHF world junior hockey championship gold-medal game up for grabs.
Finland set up that tantalizing matchup with a sloppy 8-5 win over Slovakia in Monday’s quarter-final at the Saddledome, but there was a consensus, quite rightly, among the victors that a similar effort Tuesday won’t be good enough.
“We need to improve, that’s for sure,” said captain Mikael Granlund, the Minnesota Wild first-round draft pick who had a goal and two assists. “We didn’t play our best game and we need to do that (today). We won this, and that’s all we needed. But we need to play better (Tuesday). They’re (Sweden) a good team, they have some great players. We need to play better, that’s for sure.”
There were flashes of brilliance, to be sure. Take, for instance, the second-period stretch during which Finland broke open a 2-2 tie with four goals in a six-minute, 13-second span — Granlund on the power play, younger brother Markus Granlund with two, and then 16-year-old phenom Aleksander Barkov with a historic tally. He became the youngest player to ever score in the world juniors, eclipsing the record formerly held by Sidney Crosby, who was three weeks older when he scored in 2003.
But an uncharacteristic outing from goalie Sami Aittokallio — who entered Monday’s game having given up just one goal in two games — and some shoddy defending in general kept the stubborn Slovaks in it.
“Yes, they were happy,” Aittokallio said of his celebrating teammates after the game. “But of course, when I play so poorly, I get mad at myself. I’m happy we won this game, and we’re ready for (Tuesday). I have to be better for us to win. It’s going to be exciting, I’m looking forward to it, and I’ll be a lot better. I have to forget this game.”
Slovakia had cut Finland’s lead to 6-4 in the third period, but had the starch taken out of them by a boarding major and game misconduct to Matus Chovan for a hit on Finland’s Miro Aaltonen midway through the final frame. The Finns scored twice on the ensuing advantage — Teemu Pulkkinen and Joonas Donskoi did the honours — to put the game away.
“We had to kill lots of penalties,” Slovakian captain Tomas Matousek said through an interpreter. “It was hard tonight. We’re disappointed, obviously. We wanted to win and we felt like we could’ve. Some nights you can come back, some nights you can’t.”
Joel Armia and Roope Hamalainen had the other Finnish goals, while Chovan, Marek Tvrdon, Richard Mraz, Martin Daloga and Marko Dano had the Slovakian goals.
Now, Finland can start focusing on its archrivals.
“Of course, it’s a big rivalry and it’s going to be a great game,” said Mikael Granlund. “We have a chance to go to the final, and that’s fun. It’s a huge rivalry, and it’s always fun to play against Sweden. They have a great team and that makes it better. We have a chance to beat any team in this tournament, and that’s what we’ll try to do.”
“(Tuesday) is a new game,” added Finnish coach Raimo Helminen. “We have to be glad we won today, but we have to think about Sweden. I think it was a mentally tough game for us (against Slovakia). We had to win this game, and it did not work as well as we hoped. But the main thing, the only thing, is winning in this part of the tournament.”
“It’s always interesting (playing against Sweden),” added Helminen. “We are neighbours.”
“Really friendly,” he replied with a smile. “It’s going to be fun.”
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