The Finns are finally flying home with Olympic hockey gold.
Finland knocked off the favored Russians 2-1 Sunday to win the tournament without NHL players at the Beijing Games, capturing an Olympic gold medal for the first time in the nation’s history. The defending champions had to settle for silver.
Finland had never won at the Olympics on the men’s or women’s side. It last reached the final in 2006 and lost to Sweden, matching the silver from 1988.
After winning gold in 2018 as the Olympic Athletes from Russia, the Russians competed this time as ROC, short for Russian Olympic Committee. The ROC and OAR names were the result of sanctions for doping and cover-ups across multiple Olympic sports.
The hockey tournament unfolded in the shadow of another Russian doping saga, this time in figure skating after word emerged that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva tested positive for a banned substance in December, helped the Russians win women’s team gold and was allowed to skate in the individual event, in which she finished a disappointing fourth. Players and coaches from the Russian hockey team and others at the rink faced questions about the scandal and the IOC’s ruling not to hold a medal ceremony if she finished on the podium.
No matter the name, the silver in men’s hockey was the 32nd medal the Russians took home from Beijing.
While the Russians looked like the new favorites when the NHL withdrew because of pandemic-related schedule disruptions in late December, the Finns were actually the big winners. With recent NHL players such as captain Valtteri Filppula, forward Leo Komarov and defensemen Sami Vatanen and Mikko Lehtonen on the team, Finland had the firepower to go along with its hallmark of strong structure, defense and goaltending.
That combination helped Finland go through the Olympics undefeated in six games, including a three-goal comeback to beat rival Sweden in the preliminary round. Finland beat Switzerland, Slovakia and the Russians to roll through the tournament in efficient, business-like fashion with longtime coach Jukka Jalonen behind the bench.
This final ended better for the Finns than the last time 16 years ago, when national stars Teemu Selänne, Kimmo Timonen, Mikko and Saku Koivu and Jere Lehtinen almost got the job done.
The Finnish Olympic heroes this time included leading goal-scorer Sakari Mäkinen, defenseman Ville Pokka, alternate captain Marko Anttila, winger Hannes Björninen and goaltender Harri Säteri. Pokka tied it after Mikhail Grigorenko put the Russians on the board, Björninen redirected Anttila’s shot for the winning goal and Sateri made 16 saves.
It was only fitting that Anttila played a major role in the final game of a tournament played in a quarantined bubble. The 36-year-old veteran forward spent his first six days in Beijing in isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus upon arriving in China, which has a strict COVID-19 policy inside and outside the Olympics.
This Olympic team was constructed by Lehtinen, who is now general manager after a long NHL career when he was known as one of the best defensive wingers in hockey. Through capturing bronze medals in 1994 before the NHL began participating and 1998 and 2010 with the best players in the world, Lehtinen always thought it was possible for Finland to win gold and made that feeling known.
“I tell a lot of people, ‘That year is coming,’ ” Lehtinen said. “You never know when it’s going to happen.”
That year is finally here, even though NHL stars such as Aleksander Barkov, Mikko Rantanen and Miro Heiskanen were not at the Olympics.
There were plenty of similarities to the NHL even without the league’s players filling just about every roster. The tournament was played on the narrower NHL-sized rinks in an effort to speed up games and in a confined Olympic bubble similar to what the league constructed for the 2020 playoffs to award the Stanley Cup.
Games also took place in quiet arenas — not empty like the NHL playoffs but with selected fans allowed in.
Bronze medal-winning Slovakia also can thank the NHL for withdrawing on short notice two months ago. The league was not at the Olympics for a second consecutive time after a run of five in a row dating to the 1998 Nagano Games.
The best player in the tournament was also the youngest: 17-year-old Slovakia forward Juraj Slafkovský, who led all scorers with seven goals. Slafkovský, who turns 18 in March, is a projected top-five pick in the NHL draft this summer and could be in North America as soon as next season.