Russia goes for repeat gold against Finland in Olympic hockey final
Russia will face Finland for Beijing Olympic hockey gold after the two pre-tournament favourites on Friday scraped past semifinal opponents Sweden and Slovakia to set up a battle of northern neighbours.
The Russians had to pull out a 2-1 overtime win over Sweden to gain a shot at a second straight gold medal, while Finland beat Slovakia 2-0 for a chance to collect the only colour missing from its crowded medal case in Sunday's final.
The two finalists came into Beijing as the teams to watch after the NHL cited pandemic concerns in barring its Canadian, American, and European stars from participating, a move that disproportionately weakened the NHL-heavy Canadians and Americans.
In Friday's first semi, Finland's tight defense ended the Cinderella hopes of a speedy Slovakian team.
Finland's Sakari Manninen slid one under sprawling goalie Patrik Rybar in the first period and the Finns held on, scoring a second time on an open Slovak net in the final minute.
Slovakia's charge was led again by 17-year-old phenom Juraj Slafkovksy, the tournament's joint top goal-scorer and a leading NHL prospect.
The big teenager made a nuisance of himself in front of goal once more, but the stingy Finnish defenders managed to shut him down before he could find the net.
Since 1988, Finland have won two silver and four bronze at the Olympics but are in the gold medal match for the first time in 16 years.
"It's huge for everybody individually, as a team and as a hockey country," Finland's Harri Sateri said of making the final.
"It's a big thing."
The Russians -- who have occasionally failed to click despite being stocked with top players from its tough pro league -- had a harder time with the Swedes.
Russia took the lead on an Anton Slepyshev goal early in the second period, but Sweden's Anton Lander levelled it 1-1 down the stretch, sending it to a penalty shootout won by Russia.
Both teams bring a wealth of championship experience into the final, with Russia returning several top players from its gold-medal winning side from Pyeongchang in 2018.
Finland, meanwhile, have several veterans from their 2019 world championship team, and much of the squad is made up of teammates who play together in the top leagues of Russia and Finland.