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Another chance passes by Numminen

TURIN, Italy -- Teppo Numminen has had more opportunities than most players could imagine, but now he could be down to one. He's 37 years old and has reached a point in his career where he's trying to savor every moment because you never know what the future holds. At some point, it would be nice to win something big.

Just so you know, the Buffalo Sabres defenseman will be a tad sluggish when he returns to Western New York and gets ready for the stretch run of the regular season. He played eight games in 12 days for Finland in the 2006 Winter Games, a wonderful ride that ended with a 3-2 loss Sunday in the gold medal game.

As you can imagine, he was dejected, exhausted and emotionally spent. He will need time to decompress.

"It's a brutal schedule," he said. "The first game back, the schedule is bad -- again -- continuously. There's no time to think. You just go and play."

He didn't know what to think Sunday. The Finns had won seven straight games and had outscored their opponents, 27-5, before Sweden rolled over them in the final two periods in Palasport Olimpico. While the Swedes celebrated the gold medal, Numminen was hunched over with his stick on his knees staring at the ice, knowing it was his last game in a long career for Finland.

"It's always tough," Numminen said. "When you retire from the national team, it's always sad. I'm trying to keep cool."

You didn't need to be Finnish to understand. It's been an emotional ride with the national team going back to his youth. Numminen and his family are revered in hockey across Finland. His father, Kalevi, played for Finland in the 1960 Olympics and again four years later. Kalevi coached Finland to a silver medal in the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, when Teppo was 11, so they have an entirely different view of the Miracle on Ice.

Americans remember beating the Russians, but they often forget it was not the last game. The United States secured the gold with a win over Finland two days later. It was the first opportunity to win a championship on a world-class level. Unless the Buffalo Sabres win the Stanley Cup this season, Sunday's game was likely his last chance.

"The Olympics has a tradition of a great event," he said. "It's the best athletes who gather for a huge event, and it's always been in our family. It was an exciting time [in 1980]. We hoped that Finland would have beat the U.S. and won the medal. They almost did it, but they didn't."

And they almost did it Sunday, but they didn't. The tension was mounting going into the third period of a 2-2 tie. Swedish defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom scored the winner 10 seconds into the third period with a slap shot that bombed into the top corner after a feed from Mats Sundin.

Sweden also won the gold in 1994. Hockey gold lost some of its charm in the United States when NHL players started competing in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The average American barely follows the World Championships and other international events. It's much different in Europe.

Peter Forsberg had been sidelined eight games with nagging groin problems before the Olympics. The Philadelphia Flyers encouraged him to stay home so he was healthy for the regular season, but he ignored them because he wanted to play for his country. Finland and Sweden aren't exactly pen pals.

A Swedish newspaper had this headline about Finland's 4-0 victory over Russia in the semifinals: "Congratulations On Your Silver Medal Game." Sweden was beaten twice during the qualifying round, but it chugged through the medal round while the attention turned toward Finland's quest to win its first hockey gold.

Numminen has never won an NHL playoff series during his 17-year career, let alone a Stanley Cup. He'll have a difficult time forgetting Olli Jokinen failing to bury a scoring chance with goalie Henrik Lundqvist flailing around the crease in the final seconds Sunday. Teemu Selanne was in tears. Finnish fans were bawling in the stands alongside Swedes who were crying for a different reason.

"They're a skating team, and they have so much talent," Numminen said. "We didn't have our best skating game, our best legs, and it kind of cost us. Our game goes around skating, and we weren't able to get to the level where we feel comfortable."

It was certainly Finland's biggest game since 1980, if not the biggest in Finnish history. Finland was a dominant team for the entire tournament. It had allowed only two goals at even strength in the first seven games, and it had the lead in the first period Sunday. The Finns simply ran out of fuel against the bigger, faster Swedes.

Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman didn't help matters considering his first penalty helped Sweden to its first goal and his second came in the final five minutes with Finland needing a goal.

Numminen was left standing with his stick across his knees, conceding the truth. It was another lost opportunity and likely his last.

"It's tough," he said. "We didn't skate as well as we'd like to. We fought back and battled hard, but it wasn't enough."


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