SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Sweden coach Par Marts got his first chance to publicly reflect on his prediction that added another layer to a long-standing rivalry with Finland on and off the ice.
After the Swedes beat Slovenia to earn a spot in the Olympic semifinals, Marts said Russia would beat the Finns at a news conference.
Finland, in fact, eliminated the host Russians and will face one of its European neighbors on Friday for a spot in the gold-medal game.
The next day, Marts insisted he didn’t regret honestly responding to a query about his possible opponents that most coaches usually dodge.
“I’m not like the other ones,” Marts said after Thursday’s practice. “I had a question and I answered it. That’s my way.”
And, Marts doesn’t seem to care if he fired up the Finns.
“I can’t do anything about it,” Marts said.
No, he can’t.
Finland coach Erkka Westerlund declined to react to what Marts said after he helped his team beat the host Russians, and was only slightly more forthcoming the following day.
“After the game,” Westerlund said with a coy smile, “he knew who won the game.”
The winner of the Sweden-Finland game will move on to play the defending Olympic champion Canadians or the United States on Sunday in the gold-medal game.
Like Marts, Sweden defenseman Niklas Kronwall isn’t afraid to say what he thinks.
While everyone knows how the Swedes and Finns feel about each other in Europe, fewer do in North America.
“It’s a love-hate relationship – definitely,” Kronwall said.
The usually soft-spoken Swede also didn’t mince words when asked who he expected to win the other rivalry game in the semifinals with the Canadians and Americans.
“I don’t know what it is, but it just feels like the U.S. has had a real good tournament so far,” Kronwall said. “It seems like everyone is on the same page. It’s going to be a tight game, but I think that maybe the U.S. will take this one.”
Kronwall laughed when he was told that he sounded like his straight-shooting coach.
“Canada, you can never count them out,” he said upon further review. “They somehow seem to find a way to get the wins.”
The Swedes won it all at the 2006 Turin Games, beating Finland 3-2 after Nicklas Lidstrom scored 10 seconds into the third period and Henrik Lundqvist made enough stops to seal the victory. While Lidstrom, one of the best defenseman of all time, has retired and is living back home in Sweden, Lundqvist is still kicking shots away and believes he is even better than he was eight years ago.
Sweden had not won an Olympic medal before that game in Italy with NHL players and hasn’t earned one since, finishing fifth at the Vancouver Games after beating Finland 3-0 in the preliminary round.
The Finns, meanwhile, have won more medals (three) than any other nation since Olympics began including the best hockey players in the world and yet no one seems to be talking about them entering the tournament. They beat Sweden 2-1 in the 1998 Nagano Games quarterfinals, the first with NHL players, and went on to win bronze.
“Every time we go into tournaments like this we’re disrespected,” Finland forward Olli Jokinen said. “But the good thing for our country, no matter what names are on the back, Finland’s going to play the same way no matter who we have here. We could have 20 different guys here and the results would be the same.
“Finland’s going to play Finland’s way.”
The Finnish way to play is to avoid making mistakes with the puck and to push opponents to the outside of the wide, international rink where quality scoring chances are limited. That’s usually a successful style, especially when Finland as a good goaltender as it does now with Tuukka Rask.
Sweden has a good goalie, too, and an offensive-minded game plan that includes attacking up the ice when it has the puck with tape-to-tape passing to set up slap and wrist shots.
“We need to go for the win,” Marts said. “And, not play not to lose.”
Follow Larry Lage on Twitter: http://twitter.com/larrylage