Well I sure hope you got a chance to watch the bronze medal game tonight, because it was one terrific hockey game. Had the one thing every good bronze medal game has in common: two teams that REALLY wanted to win. I'm always glad when the North American teams are not involved in this one, since somehow those from our side of the pond see a bronze medal as failure. With the Finns and the Slovaks, no such problem, and they waged a terrific battle tonight. Jari Kurri's team against Peter Bondra's team: what's not to like?
I am normally very onside with the Finns, root for them against pretty much everybody except Canada, but tonight was a rare exception. For the first time, Suomi was matched up against the equally tiny nation of Slovakia (5.3 million and 5.4 million people respectively). Both teams have won the World Championships exactly once, but on the Olympic stage the Finns have been liberally decorated with silver and bronze whereas the Slovaks have been dealt the short straw again and again, whether through unfair treatment by the powers-that-be or the caprice of the hockey gods. Tonight it was the latter that at least gave the Slovaks hope before cruelly snatching it away.
So I was not so much rooting against the Finns as I was for the Slovaks, for reasons detailed here and here. The broadcast crew of Gord Miller and Ray Ferraro - who had an excellent night on a rare shift together - reminded me of yet another reason the Slovaks had good reason to cry foul for their second-class treatment in Salt Lake City 2002, namely that they won silver at the World Championships in 2000 but were nonetheless cast to the minnows yet a third time in '02. "They changed the rules after that" said Gord. Shot back Ray: "That's when you really know you've gotten the short end of the stick!"So here were the crafty Slovak vets going for their first Olympic baubles and playing their hearts out. Marian Gaborik, playing on one leg, netted the first goal with a wicked shot to tie the affair early in the second. Marian Hossa, already on bad terms with the hockey gods, played brilliantly, scoring on a 5-on-3 to put his team out front. Pavol Demitra (pictured above playing with his club team, remember them?) was a man on a mission, playing like the pre-lockout Demitra, scoring a brilliant shorthanded goal to send the Slovaks to the locker room with a 3-1 lead. All around them were guys like Richard Zednik, Michal Handzus, Miroslav Satan, all on top of their games. Backed up by the intense Zdeno Chara, the slick Lubomir Visnovsky, with a red hot Jaroslav Halak between the pipes, the lead looked solid.
Then it all started falling apart. The Slovaks survived a four-minute penalty, then an extended 5-on-3, before finally Halak was beaten on a double deflection at the tail end of that powerplay. Within minutes the Finns struck again for the game's only even strength goal when Halak seemingly lost his net and was beaten short side by an Olli Jokinen wrist shot. Yet another iffy penalty followed, and on the powerplay Jokinen burst past Visnovsky and deked Halak to give the Finns the lead to stay. It couldn't have been more than 3 or 4 minutes and that 3-1 mirage had dessicated into the desert of defeat.
Still the Slovaks came on. In the dying minutes the troops again rallied, drew a couple powerplays of their own. As time wound down they flew around the Finnish zone, bombarding the net with a variety of dangerous shots. Halak went to the bench and the assault continued 6-on-4, then unabated 6-on-5 after the penalty expired. Some shots narrowly missed, one hit the post square on, and several were foiled by the dastardly Miikka Kiprusoff (last seen miserably failing to stop a beach ball against Team USA). Just like last night against Canada, Slovakia unleashed their "kitchen sink" offence and were absolutely horribly unlucky for the second straight night in somehow not finding twine and at least sending this most entertaining affair into overtime. The Finns finally scored an empty netter at the death to salt it away.
Empty netter aside, the Slovaks had played their fourth game in five nights, every one of them a one-goal affair. Two wins, then two losses, but their fate seemed inordinately cruel. Especially in the light of all that history.
On the other hand, I found it impossible to stay mad at the Finns for long, Kipper or no Kipper. The team had a very classy post game celebration and as they received their bronze medals I saw one player after another after another that I really like as players. Teemu Selanne, the Koivu Bros., Matti Hagman's kid, Ville Peltonen, Jere Lehtinen (who had a Great defensive game), Kimmo Timonen, and on down the list. Terrific players, almost to a man. And behind the scenes, a beaming Jari Kurri. I repeat: What's not to like?
So (deep breath), congratulations Finland on another Olympic medal, your 5th in the last 7 Olympics! And congratulations, Slovakia, for a gutty, gritty performance against your old adversaries, the odds. And the gods. You may not have won a medal, but you again earned the respect of the hockey world. Once again, you deserved better, but should hold your heads high. You won a lot of friends at these Olympics.