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Finland finally win hockey gold in last event of Beijing Games
Finland roared back to beat defending champions Russia 2-1 on Sunday and win the country’s first gold medal in ice hockey, in the final event at the Beijing Olympics.
Russia scored first on a power-play goal by Mikhail Grigorenko 13 minutes into the game after Finland's Hannes Bjorninen was sent to the penalty box for high-sticking.
But the more cohesive Finnish attack controlled the puck for much of the match and continually created chances.
The Finns tied it in the second period when a shot by Ville Pokka squirted between the legs of a Russian defender and past imposing two-metre (6-foot-6) goalie Ivan Fedotov.
Finland went ahead 30 seconds into the final period when Bjorninen scored, and nearly added more down the stretch.
With the victory, Finland finally add gold to a packed Olympic medals case in ice hockey.
The Finnish men have now won medals in seven of the past 10 Winter Olympics going back to 1988, including two silver and four bronze.
"It is hard to put in words what this means. Hockey is a big thing in Finland," said captain Valtteri Filppula.
"We have come close a couple of times and it is finally nice to get the first one (gold)."
- Stacked with talent -
Finland and the Russians came into Beijing as joint favourites after perennial contenders Canada and the United States were weakened by the NHL’s decision to keep its stars home over pandemic concerns.
The US and Canada, making do with second-choice rosters, fell in the quarterfinals.
Even without the NHL present, Finland and Russia would have been formidable contenders.
Both are stocked with top talent from Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), widely considered the world's second-best after the NHL, and a wealth of championship experience.
Finland had several key players from their 2019 world championship team and last year's second-place squad.
Russia returned with several top players from their gold-medal winning side from Pyeongchang in 2018, where they beat surprise silver medallists Germany.
But while the Finns were in sync throughout these Games, Russia consistently struggled past lesser opponents and lost once in group play, to the Czech Republic.
In the bronze-medal game, Slovakia blew past Sweden 4-0 on Saturday, powered by two goals from Juraj Slafkovksy, their 17-year-old goal-scoring phenom and a top NHL prospect.
Slafkovksy finished the Olympics as the top goal scorer in Beijing, with seven.
In women's ice hocky, Canada beat fierce rivals the United States 3-2 to take gold on Thursday, avenging a loss in the final four years ago and capping a dominant run in Beijing.
The Finnish men's win on Sunday was the country's second gold medal of the Games, the other coming in men’s cross-country skiing.
It was the second straight time that NHL superstars were absent from the Winter Olympics, which clashes with the North American league’s schedule.
Luc Tardif, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), said in Beijing on Thursday that the NHL absences were "frustrating".
Tardif said the sport's governing body would hold talks with the NHL and he was "optimistic" an arrangement could be worked out to ensure the participation of NHL stars in future Games.