SOCHI, Russia — Henrik Lundqvist already has a gold medal at home, tucked away in memory of two fantastic weeks in Turin eight years ago. Nearly half of Canada’s roster has the same souvenir from Vancouver in 2010.
Lundqvist believes ultimate Olympic success only makes a hockey player hungrier for more.
When Sweden faces powerful Canada at the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Sunday, the golden goalie expects both teams to close the Sochi Games with performances worthy of their unbeaten runs so far on the Black Sea shore. Both teams appreciate the difficulty of what they’ve done over the previous 11 days, and they intend to finish with one last masterwork.
“I think it’s going to be the best game of the tournament, and it should be,” said Lundqvist, who became a Swedish hockey icon with his performance in Turin eight years ago. “These are two fantastic teams. Everybody knows what happens next, you have to live with it for four years.”
Canada is one victory away from a perfect run after dominating the rest of the world’s best with depth, defense and championship experience. Sweden is in the same position for almost exactly the same reasons.
As the pre-tournament favorites and the reigning champions, the Canadians seem almost grateful their medal run has pitted them against Finland, the U.S. and Sweden, the other three strongest teams of the tournament.
“It’s about hockey supremacy,” Canada coach Mike Babcock said. “We like to brag that it’s our game? If you think it’s your game, you better show it’s your game.”
Two weeks ago, Russia was the most intriguing team in Sochi as it attempted to return to gold-medal glory at its home Olympics. A week ago, the U.S. appeared to be the best team in the tournament. While the Russians flamed out in the quarterfinals and the Americans got blanked in the semis, Canada and Sweden calmly proved they were a cut above the excitement.
The winner will be the first unbeaten Olympic champion since the Soviet Union won in Sarajevo in 1984. No team in the NHL era has gone through a tournament unbeaten on the way to gold, but both Canada and Sweden have avoided every obstacle so far.
Canada hasn’t even trailed in a game in Sochi, while Sweden has won every contest in regulation. Sweden has outscored Canada 17-14. Canada and its first-time Olympic goalie, Carey Price, have allowed just three goals in five games, while Lundqvist has yielded just six.
The 11 Canadians returning from that 2010 championship team understand the stakes of a gold-medal game after their overtime victory over the Americans in Vancouver. When they attempt to become the first repeat Olympic champions in more than 20 years, they’ll have their hockey-mad fans in mind — but no amount of scrutiny has changed their unyielding defensive resolve in Sochi.
“I think we feel pressure,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who still hasn’t scored a goal in Sochi. “We know everybody is watching.”
In many Swedish players, the game awakens echoes of arguably the biggest moment in their nation’s hockey history. Sweden’s shootout victory over mighty Canada in the gold-medal game at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 was immortalized on a postage stamp, and it inspired a generation of young players — including most of the members of the current team.
“It’s one of the greatest memories I have from growing up,” said 25-year-old Carl Hagelin. “It’s something that really made me want to pursue a career in hockey. Seeing those guys win gold made me want to be in the same situation.”
Lundqvist played with three members of that 1994 team in Turin, including shootout hero Peter Forsberg. Just four players from the Turin champions are in Sochi: Lundqvist, Daniel Alfredsson, Niklas Kronwall and Daniel Sedin.
That turnover makes the Swedes’ run in Sochi even more impressive. They’re playing without two gold-medal winners who are still two of their best centers: Henrik Sedin, whose bruised ribs kept him home, and captain Henrik Zetterberg, who played just one game in Sochi before leaving for back surgery.
But Sweden cruised through its preliminary-round group and advanced to the finale with a semifinal victory over Finland, patiently wearing down every opponent with mistake-free hockey.
“The Swedish way to have success is to start slow and get better,” Daniel Alfredsson said. “I think we’re getting better at the right time.”
Lundqvist expects the final difference between Sweden and Canada to be minimal. Eight years after his first gold medal, he’s hoping to make the smallest difference on the biggest stage.
“I think it’s inspiring,” Lundqvist said. “That’s how it started for me — watching the national team on TV, playing in the big championships. That’s why I wanted to play hockey.”