PREVIEW: Slovakia vs. Finland
Slovakia, Finland battle to take home bronze
What to watch -- Neither team wanted to find itself here when semifinal play began Friday, but each will attempt to lick its wounds from a day earlier and rebound, as there is still a bronze medal to be salvaged by the winner of this game.
Slovakia and Finland couldn't have taken more drastically different paths to reach this point. Although the Slovaks seemed to sleepwalk through much of the first two periods against host nation Canada, they kept their deficit to three goals thanks to the play in net by Jaroslav Halak and played a spirited third. They trimmed off two goals but failed to come up with the equalizer despite pulling Halak and buzzing all around Canada's net in the final minute of play.
The Finns, on the other hand, took the ice against the United States as if under the impression they had the late game instead of the early one. Goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff's early gaffe playing the puck led to the opening goal, and he would only look more bewildered from there as the U.S. onslaught continued. To be fair to Kiprusoff, who gave up four goals on seven shots before Niklas Backstrom took over in the crease, his teammates' attention to detail was also severely lacking in those opening 20 minutes, and by the time Finland got it together and began to skate with the Americans, it was far too late.
Last game -- Slovakia lost 3-2 to Canada in the semifinals; Finland lost 6-1 to the United States in the semifinals.
Slovakia -- After serving notice they were here to play with the big boys by recording an overtime win over Russia in group play and then knocking off defending champion Sweden in the quarterfinals, the Slovaks nearly ruined the dreams of all of Canada when they stormed back in the latter stages of Friday's game.
Lubomir Visnovsky ended any thoughts of an easy ride into the gold-medal game for the Canadians by scoring with 8:25 remaining and Michal Handzus continued a strong Olympics when he tallied his third goal -- tied with Marian Gaborik for the team lead -- with 4:53 left. The late surge was in keeping with Slovakia's game plan, to play cautious early in order to try to keep the game close before striking with everything it had.
"We knew were facing almost the best team ever," forward Marian Hossa said. "You can almost compare this to all the Russian teams from way back. They have four great lines. They're so hard to play against. We knew we had little chance but we gave them a fair fight.
"We were patient and we tried to make it a boring game. And the plan was working even though it was 3-0. Then we scored a couple of goals and, all of a sudden, it was a game and everybody in the building was a little scared."
Finland -- It should become evident fairly quick how the Finns took their embarrassing loss to the U.S. Did the immense disappointment from their poor effort Friday suck the life out of them, or will they come out angry and motivated to claim the bronze medal that is still within their grasp?
The most intriguing storyline on the Finland side would seem to concern Kiprusoff, who only desired to come to Vancouver if he was going to be the starter. He had put together a strong tournament and was coming off a shutout of the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals before imploding against the U.S. Backstrom, who has a 1.09 goals-against average in two appearances, including a shutout of Germany, stands ready if Finland coach Jukka Jalonen chooses to go in that direction.
"It's obviously very disappointing, very tough," forward Teemu Selanne said. "When a game is over after 12 minutes, I don’t know what to say. I'm stunned. This has never happened in my career on the national level. I don’t know what happened."
Total NHL players on rosters -- Slovakia 13; Finland 18
Puck drop -- There's still a lot of pride at stake with both these teams, and that was evident in players' comments to the media Friday in anticipation of this game.
"I'm very proud of my team," Hossa said. "We have a great chance (Saturday). We just have to regroup because we had a really tough game. But you know what? That would be a dream come true if we got third place."
"Bronze is a huge thing," Selanne said. "I'm going to make sure we bounce back (Saturday) and give everything we have and see what happens."
Gaborik, who came into the Olympics ailing with a lacerated thigh, didn't play in the third period Friday, leaving his status up in the air.
NHL.com prediction -- Finland figures to come out with a much more inspired effort on Saturday, but it's hard to argue with the type of hockey Slovakia has played throughout this tournament. If not for a remarkable save by Roberto Luongo late in Friday's semifinal, it might be the Slovaks and not the Canadians facing off with the U.S. for gold on Sunday. We'll go with Slovakia by a 4-2 margin for bronze.