Stealth Swedes soar again

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SOCHI, Russia -- They've been banged-up, written off and generally ignored in these Olympics, but guess where the talented Swedes are headed?

That's right, back to a gold-medal game.

In a battle of two injury-depleted lineups, it was Sweden punching its ticket to Sunday's finale by taking a page out of the Finns' historic playbook and stifling them 2-1 in a tight-checking, low-impact affair.

"When the last horn went, it was a great feeling because we played collected and as a group," St. Louis Blues forward Alexander Steen said after Friday's win. "I think we've grown, kind of gone about our way almost a little quietly throughout the tournament but continued to grow, and we know what we have in the room and I think that's what has impressed me the most is how we just focused on what's going on in there. Nothing out here has ever come in there."

The Swedes will take on the winner of Friday's highly anticipated Canada-United States semifinal. The Finns will face the loser in the bronze-medal game Saturday night.

"There's no pressure," Steen said, "just high expectations on us and that comes from within. We're just constantly reminding each other. Just the things we're doing on the ice are sending such good signals to the rest of the guys on the bench. This is a collective thing, and I'm really proud of our guys tonight."

The Swedes have now won five straight games at this tournament, and though they continue to struggle to put up big offensive numbers, especially at even strength, they showed they have lots of heart, erasing a 1-0 Finland lead midway through the second period with two goals in less than five minutes. They then performed almost a perfect shutdown of the Finns, allowing only eight shots in the third period, mostly from the perimeter.

In the final minutes, they were a yellow-and-blue wall, protecting goalie Henrik Lundqvist and foiling the Finns' efforts to get their goalie, Kari Lehtonen, to the bench for an extra attacker.

"When you're realizing you're going to get a chance to win another gold, it's an amazing feeling," said Lundqvist, who has been perhaps the best goalie in this tournament, stopping all but six shots in Sweden's five games.

His performance thus far must be gratifying, given that the Swedes were unceremoniously dumped in the quarterfinals in Vancouver four years ago.

"They had a few chances throughout the game, but overall we played a really solid game and I think we played our best so far in this tournament," said Lundqvist, the former Vezina Trophy winner. "I hope we saved our best for last. We're going to need it. We're going to play one of the better teams Sunday, Canada or U.S., I think they are extremely skilled teams and you have to respect that. But tonight it's all about enjoying this moment and then tomorrow we slowly start preparing for Sunday."

The Finns were coming off an inspired 3-1 win over host Russia in the quarterfinal, while the Swedes had not yet played any of the top teams in the tournament, beating the Czech Republic, Latvia, Switzerland and Slovenia.

Sweden also was battling injuries, having lost captain Henrik Zetterberg early in the tournament (herniated disk) and having to do without Henrik Sedin (rib) and Johan Franzen (concussion).

"We played close attention to the Russian-Finland game," Daniel Alfredsson said. "I thought Finland played outstanding and got Russia to where they wanted. We have one big goal today, and that was not to get caught in the neutral zone flat-footed and turning pucks over. I think we were able to do that by coming together with speed and getting the puck in deep. We got a lot of good forechecking going early and put them on their heels. It gave us confidence that we had throughout the game."

The Detroit Red Wing was part of the Swedes' gold-medal effort in Torino in 2006 and is hoping to have the same feeling here in Sochi on Sunday.

"It would mean a huge amount," Alfredsson said. "A lot. It's an unbelievable feeling being back in the final and playing for gold. Except for our setback with Zetterberg -- I felt so sad for him -- it's been an unbelievable tournament. We've had a lot of fun. Now we have to regroup and make sure we play our best game on Sunday."

For the Finns -- who were without starting goalie Tuukka Rask, out with the flu -- it was another bitter ending to a clash with the hockey equivalent of their older, more successful brother. The Finns were beaten by the Swedes in the gold-medal game in 2006, and their history is dotted with losses in important games to the Tre Kronor.

Still, it's hard to pin this one on Lehtonen, who made several key saves en route to a 23-save day. The one he'd like to have back, though, was Erik Karlsson's winner, a blast on the power play in the second period that Lehtonen got a piece of but could not prevent from ending up in the back of the net.

"It's just one of those things," the Dallas Stars' goalie said. "You want to make the save, but today I wasn't able to. It's the way it goes. I'm not happy about that second one but there's nothing I can do about it now."

Four years ago, the Finns were humbled in the semifinals by the U.S., but rebounded to take the bronze in a come-from-behind effort against Slovakia.

Someone asked Sami Lepisto if the Finns, who have never won an Olympic gold in men's hockey, simply can't win the big games.

"I don't know," he said. "That's a good question. In Vancouver we [messed] the bed against the U.S. Today, I felt like we didn't have our best game. I don't know. It's very disappointing."

One thing you can count on from the Finns, though: They will treat the bronze-medal game with the same resolve they treat every game.

"It's very disappointing," Jussi Jokinen said. "These are the chances you don't get too often. It's four more years, and we don't know if NHL players are there after these Olympics, so it's a tough pill to swallow.

"Obviously our goal was to win Olympic gold here, and we came up short. Obviously, still one more game for us tomorrow, and we would like to get at least a medal to go home."

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