Once again, it came down to a shootout for Sweden. In the semi-final. One shot and one save for a trip to the gold-medal final.
Max Friberg made his shot count Tuesday; Finland captain Mikael Granlund didn’t. And just like that, Sweden was able to put away its dour memories of 2011 and advance to the final game of the 2012 world junior tournament.
All along, this was the game Sweden had highlighted for itself, a chance for semi-final salvation. “This game, we talked it about all tournament here,” Swedish defenceman Patrik Nemeth said. “We had to win this.”
In a game that started slowly only to come alive late, Sweden scored a 3-2 shootout victory over Finland to move one step closer to fulfilling its ultimate goal – beating either Canada or Russia for gold. That it came down to a shootout seemed oh so fitting.
A year ago in Buffalo, the Swedes were crushed by Russia, blowing a third-period lead to lose in the semi-final in a shootout. They followed that with a loss to the United States in the bronze-medal game and went home with nothing but heart-wrenching memories.
Against Finland on Tuesday, the Swedes trailed 2-0, battled back on a late third-period goal by the hot-handed Friberg, who then capped the evening in Blue and Gold with the shootout winner. But before the Swedes could celebrate, they had to wait for Finland’s final shooter, Granlund, who had to score to keep his side alive.
Granlund skated in on goaltender Johan Gustafsson, then lost control of the puck. He never even got a shot away.
“I had something set up,” Granlund explained. “The puck went away.”
For most of the game, the Finns showed they were not about to go away quietly. Their goaltender, Sami Aittokallio, who was spotty in the quarter-final against Slovakia and vowed to be better, was unbeatable through two periods as teammates Alexander Ruuttu and Joel Armia staked Finland to a 2-0 lead.
The Swedes pushed back hard and hit the scoreboard on their 38th shot on net. With Finland defenceman Simo-Pekka Riikola off for hooking, William Karlsson had a puck bounce off his shins past Aittokallio early in the third period. Then it was Friberg who forced overtime by converting off a bad clearing attempt by Aittokallio.
In the mixed zone after the game, Aittokallio, who had faced 57 shots overall, kept his head down and answered questions while choking back his emotions.
“I played the puck, tried to shoot it. I played it poorly, my mistake,” he said. “I wanted to win a gold medal. We lost. It wasn’t enough.”
The Swedes insisted they didn’t panic after falling behind to their Nordic rivals. As they had talked about all tournament, the goal was to play with confidence when the game mattered most. Even when overtime with Finland settled nothing, the Swedes had a sense fate would be kinder to them this time around.
“There was a lot better feeling this year compared to last year,” Nemeth admitted. “We played a lot better today. We had faith. It doesn’t matter who we play [in the final]”
Sweden also had the mighty Friberg, who has been a goal-scoring terror since Boxing Day and the target of jeering fans ever since he rode his stick à la Tiger Williams in a earlier shootout showing against Switzerland.
“I decided to shoot between [Aittokallio’s]legs,” Friberg said of his Finnish finisher. “I think we showed great patience and it could end up well.”
The Swedes last won a world junior medal (a bronze) in 2010. But they have only one gold medal in their history and it came 31 years ago. Back then, Sweden’s current head coach Roger Ronnberg was just 10 but he remembered it well enough to inspire his young players here.
“We have a picture of that team in our dressing room,” said Ronnberg, who praised the seven returning players from 2011 for setting the emotional tone for 2012. “It’s the leadership on this team. The kids in the dressing room are so strong.”
Perhaps strong enough to turn last year’s disappointment into this year’s salvation. If it comes down to a shootout, they like their chances now.