Sweden is in the unique position of being a traditional hockey power that usually does badly in the world junior tournament – just one championship in its history, compared to 15 for Canada and 13 for the combined Soviet Union and Russia.
How does one explain that unlikely phenomenon?
"It's because the world juniors is a real hard tournament to win," Sweden coach Roger Ronnberg answered Wednesday, as his charges prepared for the gold-medal game against Russia on Thursday. "If you go to the Stanley Cup, it's best-of-seven. It's totally different. Here, it's a short tournament and it's all down to one or two games. Here, we have to win the right game."
On Tuesday, Sweden advanced to the final by capitalizing on a miscue from Finnish goalie Sami Aittokallio to tie the game late and then prevailing in the shootout. The victory sets up a rematch with the Russians, a team Sweden defeated 4-3 in overtime to end the round robin.
Sweden came from three goals down to beat the Russians, in what was the best game of the tournament thus far, thanks in part to Russia's propensity for taking undisciplined penalties that permitted the Swedes to score a bunch of power-play goals. Sweden's power play has been dynamic in this tournament, especially early on, and for all the attention paid to sparkling draft-eligible players Filip Forsberg and Sebastian Collberg, the country's most effective forward is the 143rd pick in the 2011 entry draft, Max Friberg.
Anaheim Ducks, take a bow. Mad Max could be the steal of the draft. Sometimes, 5-foot-11 guys that don't naturally demonstrate a scoring touch have something special that permits them to play well in the big games.
"I hope Sweden has one big game left," said Friberg, who has been a quote machine in this tournament, but stayed on message Wednesday, "and I will do everything I can, too, to be a part of it. We won [the world juniors]one time I think and it's been 31 years, so we really have nothing to lose."
For Friberg and the Swedes, winning a gold medal after so many years of futility would be a fitting end to a thus-far successful event. They are the only undefeated team left standing.
Friberg has been booed in Calgary since he rode his stick like Tiger Williams to celebrate a shootout goal over Switzerland in the round robin, but in the aftermath of Canada's loss to Russia on Tuesday, fans at the Scotiabank Saddledome immediately started to cheer: "Go Sweden Go." So even if the Swedes weren't the people's choice before, they may be now.
"They did?" Friberg said. "It would be great to have the fans on our side."
As for how the tournament has unfolded, in front of full houses throughout, Ronnberg spoke for all the visiting teams when he described it as "the experience of a lifetime – for those kids to play in this environment, to play in the full buildings, in front of people who know hockey – because the culture of hockey, here in Canada, is so strong. Everybody's talking hockey, and everybody understands hockey. They are thrilled."