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Finland, Sweden in Scandanavian showdown

There are mythical moments in Olympic history that only a child can dream.

In the 54 years Sweden and Finland have played hockey at the Winter Games, they've never met for the gold medal.

"Actually, we met once when I was a little boy," recalled Finland's Teemu Selanne with a smile. "It was outdoors in Finland with my buddies. I dreamed of playing that game against Sweden in the Olympic final. That time, we won. So hopefully, we repeat that."

Today at Palasport Olimpico, they finally meet.

For an American, it's difficult to frame what this game means to both nations. It's bigger than the United States versus Canada.

"Playing against Sweden, well, you could not get a better situation," said Ville Nieminen. "Unless you were born in Finland or Sweden, you would not be able to figure out what it means."

Their history is ancient. Because Finland acts as a buffer between Sweden and Russia, it was a pawn in a centuries-long chess struggle as both Russia and Sweden imposed their will and occupation on the Finns.

At various times, each controlled Finland. The Russians eventually entered a partnership with the Finns in the 19th century, but by the early part of the 20th century, Finland had won its independence.

The occupation by the Swedes, however, is not lost on this present generation of hockey players.

"It goes way, way back when we were under Sweden's rule," said Finnish captain Saku Koivu. "We always think they are better than us. We played against them so often for so many years. Every country has one opponent they want to beat and for us, it's Sweden."

Between the IIHF World Championships and Olympics, they have met 60 times with Sweden winning 39 matches, Finland 15 and six ties.

One game defines both nations. The 2003 World Championships were held in Selanne's hometown of Helsinki. For the Finns, the quarterfinal match was traumatic.

Sweden's Mats Sundin scored the game's first goal. Then Finland erupted for five goals in succession, chasing goalie Tommy Salo for Mikael Tellqvist. The Swedes mounted a comeback, beginning with Peter Forsberg, who made it 5-2. It ended with P.J. Axelsson's 6-5 game-winner.

In the streets of Helsinki during the days that followed, residents wore blue Finnish jerseys that read: "5-6 Catastrophe."

"I hope that was the learning lesson for us and we never have to go through that again," Selanne said. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And that's how we felt that time."

Flyers' goalie Antero Niittymaki has done that on his own with three shutouts and a 0.67 goals-against average, and a .970 save percentage. The Finns have yielded five goals in the tournament. Selanne is the Olympic scoring leader with six goals.

Sweden's leading scorer is Daniel Alfredsson (four goals). The game has an entirely different meaning to him and several teammates.

Alfredsson has won a Swedish Championship. Sundin has won a World Championship. Fredrik Modin has won the Worlds and a Stanley Cup. Peter Forsberg and Nik Lidstrom have won multiple Stanley Cups.

The members of this Swedish quintet have each won something on their own. Yet they've never won an Olympic gold together. Remember, when Forsberg won the gold medal in 1994, the others weren't on the team.

"It means a lot," Forsberg said of this game. "We're hungry and we know what it means. It's our last chance to play together and win. That is why I wanted to come over here so badly. I knew it be my last time playing with Sundin, Alfredsson and Lidstrom. We all know it's our last chance."

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