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Top Shelf: Champs still have chomp

Loui Eriksson is second in Dallas scoring with 54 points in 61 games. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

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Loui Eriksson is second in Dallas scoring with 54 points in 61 games. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Most of the talk surrounding the blue and yellow involves the word ‘golden.’

An assortment of Swedish stars are in the twilight of their career, a golden generation defending a gold medal won four years ago on the heels of a humiliating quarterfinal defeat at the hands of Belarus back in 2002.

The Swedes’ sweet redemption in Turin has sort of put them in a unique position for these Games in Vancouver. In some ways, it’s almost like they’re playing with house money. As individuals, Nicklas Lidstrom, Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin all vanquished the ghosts of ’02 and further legitimized stellar careers by contributing to a magic moment for themselves and their country.

(Peter Forsberg, of course, already checked that off his to-do list when he introduced Canadian goalie Corey Hirsch and the entire hockey world to that tricky little one-handed drag move in the golden shootout of 1994.)

While Canada obviously faces the crushing expectations of a nation and the Russians have the hefty burden of essentially entering the tournament as co-favorites with the hosts, Sweden has to feel equally capable and loose. I don’t know that anything at the Olympics could be equated to gravy or icing with all those superbly fit athletes around, but you’d have to think a repeat performance is more a lovely indulgence than a matter of life and death for the Tre Kronor at this point.

Does that mean they lose an edge because they’re not as hungry post-2006 gold as before? Perhaps, but I’ll take a loose bunch of elite hockey players over a too-tightly wound group any day.

And it’s not like all incentive has abandoned the Swedes. First of all, every one of those superstars got to where they are by being driven, competitive people who hate to lose. Certainly Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg could tell you a thing or two about having the internal fire to compete year in and year out, both being members of the NHL’s model franchise in Detroit. Sundin has already hung ’em up and what better way for the other guys who will soon join him on a beach somewhere to enter their post-playing days with two gold medals jingling around their neck?

Then there’s the matter of Sweden’s new caretakers. Daniel and Henrik Sedin have become absolutely elite NHL players, but still have to answer questions about being the driving force behind a winning team. They were 26-year-old support players last time Sweden struck gold; now they’re 30 and absolutely dirty out there, and will be counted on to anchor a top scoring line. Grabbing a gold medal in their surrogate city would go a long way toward establishing the twins as prime-time players on the biggest stage.

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And dropping down even a generation further, Nicklas Backstrom enters his first Olympic derby in a familiar spot – the shadow of more prominent players on his team.

Backstrom plays a furious second-fiddle to Alex Ovechkin in Washington. The 22-year-old’s 26 goals in 62 games this year lead all Swedes in the NHL, while his 76 points is second only behind the 80 Henrik Sedin has put up as the league’s second-leading scorer.

Think the guy can play a little?

We’ll know very soon who Backstrom will line up with, at least to start the tournament, but maybe coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson should consider pairing the natural passer with fellow youngster Loui Eriksson. The 24-year-old Dallas Stars sniper is another of the next-generation Swedes who could play a prominent role in helping his country to an encore celebration, especially if he finds success finishing off Backstrom’s sublime dishes.

Nashville’s Patric Hornvqvist has the same amount of goals (23) this year as Eriksson and the 23-year-old is another candidate to take the torch from the Swedes riding off into the sun.

Toss together the talent – both young, old and in between – Sweden boasts and it’s plain to see how this easy-going ensemble will be a lot to handle for any team with designs on gold.

And if Henrik Lundqvist – whose name usually appears at the top of pro-Sweden lobbies, not the bottom – tends goal the way he tends to, the Olympics could have its first back-to-back winner since NHLers arrived on the scene 12 years ago.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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