SOCHI, Russia — Nicklas Backstrom remembers the last time the Sweden men’s hockey team played for an Olympic gold medal. He was 18 years old playing in Sweden’s top professional league, a child among men, really — unless you’re judging solely on talent.
He watched two intense periods of play but missed Sweden’s game-winning goal in the third. He was living in a small town called Gävle, at the time preparing for his own bright future, and he couldn’t afford to miss practice.
“I’ve seen it a couple of times on replays,” the Washington Capitals’ 26-year-old center said with a smile.
He won’t miss any parts of Sweden’s next gold medal game. Backstrom and Sweden are returning to the gold medal game. After disposing of Finland, 2-1, in Friday’s semifinal, the Swedes advanced to face Canada in Sunday’s gold medal game. Sweden also won gold in 1994 and 2006, planting seeds for younger generations of hockey hopefuls.
“Obviously, you dream about it,” Backstrom said. “But right now, it’s about us. It’s a new Olympics. We have to think about what we should be doing here.”
If they can match their performance from Friday, the Swedes will be tough to top. And whether it’s 2006 or 2014, some things never change. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is still tougher to solve than a Russian crossword puzzle.
The 31-year-old vet led the Swedes to gold eight years ago, and he’s enjoying an even better Olympics this time around. He has been in net for every minute of five games and has allowed just six goals in the tournament. He faced 26 shots on goal and made 25 saves in Sweden’s big semifinal win Friday.
With Lundqvist in the crease, Sweden’s forwards know the slightest lead can be insurmountable, and they entered Friday’s game with reason for optimism: Just two days after ousting Alex Ovechkin and the Russian team, Finland goaltender Tuukka Rask fell ill and was unable to dress for the semifinal matchup.
Still, Finland was first on the scoreboard when Olli Jokinen found a sliver of daylight between Lundqvist’s pads barely six minutes into the second period. But then Sweden took advantage of a turnover minutes later, and Jonathan Ericsson fed the puck to Loui Eriksson for the quick score to tie the game. Backstrom was credited with an assist on the play, his fourth of the Olympics.
Sweden then broke the tie with 3 minutes 34 seconds remaining in the period. On a power play, Alexander Steen swung the puck around to Erik Karlsson, who fired a one-timer from just short of the blue line.
Sweden’s defense held up in the final period against an increasingly desperate and frantic Finland team. Finland outshot the Swedes 8-3 in the final period, but nothing was getting by Lundqvist, who didn’t pause to catch his breath until the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“What a feeling that last five, 10 seconds,” the New York Rangers veteran said. “That’s the best feeling. That’s the feeling you’re looking for as an athlete.”
Despite its strong history, Sweden didn’t necessarily enter the tournament as a gold medal favorite. The Swedes lack the depth of Canada and are missing injured stars Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Henrik Sedin.
“I think it shows character in our locker room,” said Backstrom, who is appearing in his second Olympics. “Tough injuries — we’ve been fighting it through, coming together as a team, really working together. That’s what’s it’s all about, I think. Obviously, we have a really good goalie, too.”
They’ve had to rely on younger players such as Karlsson, who has four goals and four assists in the tournament.
“Some guys have been in this situation before; some haven’t, including myself,” said the 23-year-old defenseman for the Ottawa Senators. “I don’t think I really realize how big it is sometimes, but maybe that’s a good thing.”
Karlsson said he felt the United States had been playing the best hockey in the tournament, but players expressed no preference on their opponent in the gold medal matchup. Even before Canada shut out the United States on Friday evening, the Swedish team knew it would be preparing for a physical North American opponent with a deep bench.
Sweden has improved with each game as players have become more accustomed to skating with each other. While Friday represented their best effort, to win gold they’re prepared to dig deeper.
“I think we played our best so far in this tournament. Again, I hope we saved our best for last,” Lundqvist said. “We’re gonna need it. We’re gonna play an even better team on Sunday.”