Finland captured its first-ever Olympic hockey gold medal on Sunday, defeating the favored Russian Olympic Committee 2-1. Photo by Mark Cristino/EPA-EFE
Feb. 20 (UPI) — The third time was the charm for Finland, as its men’s hockey team defeated defending champion Russian Olympic Committee, 2-1, on Sunday for the nation’s first Olympic gold in the sport after a pair of previous appearances in the final.
Finland’s Hannes Bjorninen broke a 1-1 tie with the game-winning goal, his first of the tournament, at just 29 seconds into the third period.
As the clock ran out on the contest, Finnish players leaped over the boards and joined in a joyous scrum around goaltender Harri Sateri, while the ROC players on the ice appeared stunned at the result. The Finns finished the tournament with a sterling 6-0 record.
“Great team, great effort,” forward Marko Anttila told NBC after the win. “It hasn’t been the easiest for us, but we found a way to win every game and that speaks to the character on the team.”
Finland can now finally add gold to their collection of two men’s hockey silvers — from 1988 and 2006 — and four bronzes.
The Finns stifled the favored Russians with a stingy defensive effort and a decided edge on the offensive attack, running up a 31-17 advantage in shots.
Russia opened the scoring at the eighth minute of the first period when Mikhail Grigorenko scored a power-play goal on a wrist shot through traffic.
Finland drew even at 3:28 in the second when defenseman Ville Pokka’s wrist shot from near the blue line found its way through the legs of a Russian defender and into the net.
Bjorninen then capped the scoring in the third period by deflecting a spinning shot by Anttila, a result that came after a strong forechecking effort by the Finnish team kept the puck in the Russian zone.
Despite being a goal down, Russia could only muster three shots in the final period, as the Finns sustained the pressure with 10 shots of their own.
The loss kept the Russians from repeating as Olympic champions, although they won their gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games under a different name. While the athletes are competing as the ROC in Beijing, they were known as the OAR — Olympic Athletes from Russia — four years ago.
Russia remains banned from any world championship sporting events until the end of 2022 due to a systematic, state-sponsored doping program that came to light in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. However, athletes able to prove that they are “clean” have been allowed to compete under a neutral banner.
The country’s doping record remained in the spotlight throughout the Beijing Games, as the saga around figure skater Kamila Valieva’s positive drug test and the decision by arbitrators to allow her to compete in the women’s singles event drew intense scrutiny and criticism.
With NHL players sitting out a second consecutive Games, the deep Russian squad, comprised of players from its professional Kontinental Hockey League, seemed poised to climb to the top of the podium again.
However, the Finnish team brought firepower of its own with a roster featuring former NHL players including captain Valtteri Filppula, forwards Leo Komarov and Markus Granlund and defensemen Sami Vatanen and Mikko Lehtonen.
The squad showed off a grit and togetherness throughout their Olympic run, highlighted by a stunning 4-3 overtime win against Sweden in group play after entering the third period down 3-0.
“Over the last three or four years, it’s [been] a lot of the same players, same coaches,” Anttila said. “And we found a way to win these tough games.”