QUEBEC – Even when playing for a consolation prize, beating the Swedes is sweet for Finland.
Antti Pihlstrom and Janne Niskala staked Finland to an early lead and Niklas Backstrom made 36 saves for the shutout in a 4-0 victory over Sweden on Saturday to take the bronze medal at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
“A medal is always a medal,” said Finnish veteran Saku Koivu. “Obviously, you’d like to be in the final, but we had a lot of people back home watching the game.
“It’s a big tournament for Europeans countries. And playing against the Swedes – we don’t want to lose to them. Now we got the bronze, people back home are happy and we can have a bit more fun with this.”
Pihlstrom, a Nashville Predators prospect, added his second of the game and fifth of the tournament in the third period and Saku’s younger brother Mikko Koivu had an empty-net goal for Finland.
Finland, beaten 4-0 by Russia on Friday in the semifinals, has won a medal at three consecutive world championships, taking silver last year and bronze in 2006.
Sweden, 5-4 losers to Canada in the semifinals, lost a second consecutive world championship bronze medal game after falling 3-1 to Russia in Moscow a year ago. Sweden’s fourth place finish in the tournament also puts Canada back into the No.1 spot in IIHF rankings.
“Backstrom won the game for them,” said Swedish defenceman Anton Stralman.
Many players don’t enjoy playing for a bronze medal a day after the disappointment of losing in the semifinals and this one was a mostly passionless affair.
The Finns got the early lead and then laid back and checked a not terribly inspired Swedish team, which nonetheless used seven power plays to build a 36-13 shot advantage before 12,009 spectators at the Pepsi Colisee.
The game took on more significance for the Finns when star Teemu Selanne, who is contemplating retirement from the NHL, said he had played his last game for his country..
“I played my last game for the national team. It’s time to move on,” Selanne said after the game.
The match also featured a rare instance of Saku Koivu, the Montreal Canadiens captain, and Mikko Koivu, the Minnesota Wild centre, playing together on the same line. Saku moved from centre to left wing as they skated together from the middle of the first period on.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get that chance again,” said Saku, holding his toddlers – daughter Ilona and son Aatos – as he talked to the media. “And we had our parents up in the stands, so it was pretty cool for them as well.
“We have a nine-year age difference and it’s only been a couple of years that we’ve been living the same life, so now playing on the same line was a great experience.”
A sleepy first period perked up somewhat when Pihlstrom opened the scoring at 11:31, firing a puck in after Niko Kapanen partially fanned on a shot from the left circle and saw it squirt into the slot.
Stefan Liv, the surprise starter in the Swedish net ahead of Henrik Lundqvist and Mikael Tellqvist, was beaten cleanly on a seeing-eye wrist shot from the point to the top corner by Niskala at 13:44.
The Finns had penalty trouble in the second frame, when they were outshot 11-2, but Backstrom was a wall as he used his glove to sweep away a Tony Martensson shot that was rolling toward the post. Plus, he made a huge pad save on Daniel Fernholm from the doorstep during a 5-on-3 advantage.
The Swedes went 0-for-5 on the power play in the period and 0-for-7 overall.
Only 2:18 into the third frame, Pihlstrom was left alone at the far post to bang in Hannes Hyvonen’s pass from the corner. Koivu added a short-handed, empty-net goal with 2:25 left to play.
“We battled hard but I don’t know if we were that much better (than Sweden),” said Finnish captain Ville Peltonen. “Backstrom was the difference.
“They had chances and outshot us badly, but that’s how it is. It’s always good to beat the Swedes. And for the Finnish people who have spent two weeks in front of their TVs, they get to celebrate a bit too.”
He said Finland also had the advantage of playing the early semifinal on Saturday while Sweden played at night.
Sweden’s top goalie Lundqvist was pulled after two periods and Tellqvist looked good in the third period against Canada, but Swedish coach Bengt Gustafsson said Liv, who stopped only nine of 12 shots, deserved the start.
“We felt and believed that Liv has looked better than Tellqvist throughout the tournament,” said Gustafsson. “We believed he would take this challenge and win this game for us.”
The last time Sweden and Finland met in a bronze medal game was 2002, when Sweden won 5-3. The two also met in the 2006 Olympic final, with the Swedes again emerging the winner.
Sweden’s all-time record in official games against Finland is now 40-16-15. Including exhibition games, it is 151-84-33 since their first meeting in 1928.