GANGNEUNG, South Korea — For the third time in six Olympic women's hockey tournaments, Finland is the best of the rest.
With the United States and Canada maintaining their stranglehold on the sport, the Finns claimed the third spot on the podium — the only one on they realistically hoped for — by beating Russia 3-2 on Wednesday in the bronze medal game.
"It was a big goal for us," said captain Jenni Hiirikoski, who was also a member of the 2010 team that finished third to the North Americans in Vancouver. "On a good day, we have a chance against the U.S. and Canada. But this is what we wanted."
Noora Raty stopped 20 shots, and Petra Nieminen, Susanna Tapani and Linda Valimaki scored for Finland, which also took bronze — behind the U.S. and Canada — in the inaugural Olympic women's event in 1998.
Lyudmila Belyakova had a goal and an assist, and Olga Sosina also scored for the "Olympic Athletes from Russia." It was their best Olympic result ever, following up a fifth-place finish in 2014 despite having home-ice advantage.
"We drew the right conclusions after our performance in Sochi, and we fought for the bronze medal," coach Alexei Chistyakov said. "It was not sufficient, but we will aim at that next time."
Both teams landed in the bronze medal match after losing 5-0 to a North American power.
With Canada and the United States playing in the gold medal game on Thursday for the fifth time in six Winter Games, the Olympic women's hockey tournament can be viewed as two overlapping events: One is a two-week slog until the U.S. and Canada play in the final, and the other is a six-team competition to claim the remaining spot on the podium.
Finland has done that more than anyone else.
"We have to be realistic, the North American teams are still the top teams in the world," Finland coach Pasi Mustonen said. "It's no question the two best teams are playing in the final. And the third and fourth teams played in the bronze game."
The Finns beat Russia 5-1 in pool play but had a tougher go in the medal round. The teams were even in shots — 22-22 — but the Russians never led after falling behind 2-0 off the opening faceoff of the second period.
The Finns celebrated by posing for a team photo in the middle of the ice, which was littered with the equipment they threw in the air at the final horn.
The Russians wept in the locker room. Asked what he told his team, Chistyakov said: "You have to be more passionate, more committed to ice hockey in order not to cry next time."
The Finns took the lead two minutes into the game when Minnamari Tuominen flipped the puck in from the middle and Nieminen got enough of a tip on it to deflect it past Nadezhda Morozova.
The goalie saw more unwanted action midway through the period when she took a stick to the side and crumpled over in the crease, unable to get up until there was a whistle. The trainers came out to see her, but she remained in the game
Just 10 seconds into the second period, Finland scored again when Michelle Karvinen skated toward the back of the net but backhanded it to Tapani in the slot for the goal. Sosina tied it for the Russians two minutes later, and then eight seconds later a Finland penalty gave them an opening to tie it.
But Raty, who won a pair of NCAA championships at the University of Minnesota, remained strong, and Finland killed off another penalty shortly after the first one expired. Valimaki gave the Finns a 3-1 lead with eight minutes left in the second period, drawing the goalie to the left before sliding across the crease and putting the puck in the right side.
It stayed that way until there was 4:25 gone in the third, when Hiirikoski took a tripping penalty. Belyakova sneaked past the defense to receive a pass as she crossed over the blue line, then went in on Raty alone to cut the deficit to one goal.
Russia's best chance was when it picked up a power play with about five minutes later. But before it could mount a power play, Anna Shokhina inexplicably smacked a Finn on the helmet and went off for high sticking, leaving the teams at even strength.