Big guys gone, Nordic powers take over in gold medal final

This is their game of a lifetime, and they know it. This is a Stanley Cup finals Game 7 magnified, a once unimaginable gold-medal matchup of tiny bordering countries come true.

In a tournament where the big countries and traditional powers have been eliminated, Nordic rivals Finland and Sweden play for the Olympic men's hockey gold medal on Sunday.

No Canada, no Russia, no United States, no Czech Republic. No, the favorites couldn't stand up to two teams from countries that have only .002 percent of the world's population but a far greater percentage of the world's hockey talent.

"I think it will be the biggest game ever," Finland forward Saku Koivu said. "We all know the importance of it. There will be a lot of emotion involved."

For good reason, too nearly two centuries ago, the two countries were one. But after Russia overran part of the country in 1809, Sweden ceded Finland to the Russians, and Finland didn't gain autonomy until 108 years later.

Still, this is a friendly rivalry; some players on opposing sides Sunday will go back to being NHL teammates Monday. But neither country wants to lose this game, especially since there is no guarantee their first Olympic final together will be followed by a second.

Consider this headline Saturday in a Swedish newspaper about Finland's 4-0 semifinal win over Russia: "Congratulations on your silver medal game."

And when Finn coach Erkka Westerlund heard of Finland general manager Jari Kurri's comment the game was like a little brother playing a big brother, he asked, "Who is the little brother? Our lovely neighbor?"

"It's pretty similar to when Canada and Soviet Union used to play the Summit Series" in the 1970s, Finland's Olli Jokinen said. "That was a battle every time. For our country, we have a lot of bad memories of playing Sweden. We have to change this."

One of those memories was a 6-5 Swedish win in the 2003 world championships in which Finland couldn't hold a 5-1 lead. A year later, Finland couldn't hold a 3-1 lead in a 4-all tie with Sweden in the World Cup, though the Finns came back to claim second place.

It's not a total surprise these teams are here. Sweden won the 1994 Olympics on Peter Forsberg's shootout goal against Canada; Finland won the silver in 1988 and has been a world championship contender for years. The two also had a combined 36 NHL players coming into the games, reports AP.

O.Ch.