Lundqvist Saves Day, And Gold, For Sweden

Goalie's Late-Game Stop Holds Off Rival Finland: Sweden 3, Finland 2

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006; Page E09

TURIN, Italy, Feb. 26 -- The moments when he clinched the gold medal were so frantic -- a puck skidding perilously close to the Swedish goal, a Finnish player ready to pounce -- that it's a wonder Henrik Lundqvist could even keep track. Here he was, playing in his first Olympics, 25 seconds to go in the final game, and Finland's Olli Jokinen standing to his right, preparing to tie the score, to force overtime.

What, exactly, happened next, Lundqvist can't say. "I'm not sure," he said.

Swedish players surround goalie Henrik Lundqvist after their victory over Finland.
Swedish players surround goalie Henrik Lundqvist after their victory over Finland. (Getty Images)

His teammates knew. Lundqvist, the Swedish goalie, split his legs, a move that for most would result in excruciating pain but for him was second nature. He saw Jokinen swipe at the puck. Instinctively, he stuck his arm up. The puck hit his stick.

"That's the gold," Swedish forward Fredrik Modin said, "right there."

Indeed, because of Lundqvist's spectacular save in the waning seconds Sunday afternoon, and because the stalwarts of Swedish hockey -- NHL stars Nicklas Lidstrom, Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg -- combined for the winning goal just 10 seconds into the third period, Sweden came away with a 3-2 victory that provided its first hockey gold since 1994.

Before the final horn sounded, Lundqvist began skating from his net, throwing his arms in the air. He is in his first year as a starter for the New York Rangers, and he has a chance to win the NHL's rookie of the year award. But as his teammates tossed their sticks and their gloves to the ice, as they knocked Lundqvist's goal from its supports and piled on each other near the boards, it was clear the 23-year-old, by virtue of his work over 60 scintillating minutes, had already become a national hero, from Kiruna in the north to Kristianstad in the south.

"It just feels great to have this finish in the game and show everybody in the hockey world that Sweden is a great team, a great nation," Lundqvist said. "After a couple tough years, we're finally back where we belong."

Lundqvist didn't state his position in an arrogant matter, but it's possible the Finns could have taken it that way, because it is the nature of this rivalry. Jari Kurri, the Finnish general manager, said before the game that the heated rivalry was like a little brother taking on his older sibling, with jealousy and inferiority complexes all at work. With a population of roughly 5.2 million people, Finland would have become the smallest country every to win Olympic gold in hockey. Instead, Sweden -- which used to rule over Finland -- reestablished its superiority.

"It was our turn," Swedish Coach Bengt Ake Gustafsson said.

Yet the Finns, honestly and earnestly, felt that it was their turn. They entered the gold medal match having won all seven of their Olympic games, including a dominant 4-0 semifinal victory over talented Russia in which Antero Niittymaki, a rookie goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers, posted Finland's fifth shutout of the tournament. There seemed to be a growing belief that the little brother had been working out, bulking up, and now might be ready to fell the more powerful kid from the room next door.

When the Finns scored first, a tip-in by captain Saku Koivu in the first, it was clear this would be a worthy matchup for the Swedes, who had scored 13 goals in their previous two games. Even when Sweden took a 2-1 lead 13 minutes into the second period -- on a goal by Niklas Kronwall, who stood and stared after he scored in a celebration that seemed to say, "We're here to win!" -- the Finns fought right back with the prettiest goal of the game, a backhand flip from Ville Peltonen off a no-look pass from Jussi Jokinen. For all they had been through against Sweden -- including a blown 5-1 lead in the quarterfinals of the 2003 world championships -- the Finns showed they weren't going to get caught up in the fact that the jersey of the opposing team was that familiar blue and yellow.

"It was just another team against us," Finnish defenseman Petteri Nummelin said. "We never think: It's Sweden."

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