SOCHI – When looking forward to their gold medal opponent, the Swedes were kind of like that guy who moves from northern Manitoba to southern California. Despite his beginnings, the guy can never quite readjust to the bone-chilling temperatures when he visits his folks back home.
So it goes with the big ice. Conventional wisdom would hold that the Swedes would hold an advantage over Canada or USA, their gold medal opponent after defeating Finland 2-1 in the semifinal. But 24 of the 25 players on the Swedish roster make their living in the NHL these days.
“Honestly, if you look at our team, most of our senior careers we’ve been over in (North America),” said Swedish defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. “We’ve been Americanized, or however you say it. We’re really used to playing on the small ice surface, too, so it’s been taking a while for us too to get used to it. I don’t think it’s a huge advantage for us. I think it’s pretty equal.”
What won’t be equal is that the Swedes will enter the tournament as the only team to win all of its games in regulation time. They have been extremely effective in this tournament, particularly on the power play, getting timely goals from NHL stars such as Erik Karlsson and even more timely saves from Henrik Lundqvist. And the win over Finland was no exception. Karlsson’s goal, his fourth of the tournament, pushed the Swedish power play to 7-for-19, or a ridiculous 36.8 conversion rate. And after allowing a weak goal to Olli Jokinen, Lundqvist settled down and locked down.
The game, as one would expect, was a triumph of superior talent over superhuman effort. Missing some of their best players, the Finns were forced to try to slow the game down and keep it close. Their defensive posture represented their best chance to win, but it also served as their undoing.
“We played extremely well and we worked really hard and it felt like we went for it all the time,” Lundqvist said. “We tried to create that chance and score that goal. If I compare us to the Finns, they played really well, but they sat back a little more.”
The Swedes entered the tournament as one of the heavy favorites to be in Sunday’s final and to this point, have done nothing to suggest they didn’t deserve that distinction. But Sunday will represent a whole different set of circumstances for them. With all due respect to the other teams in this tournament, the Swedes have not faced anyone that even approaches the depth of talent Canada and USA possess. The Swedes have a similar amount of depth and a good mixture of experience and youthful vigor. Lundqvist, Niklas Kronwall, Daniel Alfredsson and Henrik Sedin are holdovers from the team that captured the gold medal in 2002, while players such as Karlsson, Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund and Oliver Ekman-Larsson represent the new breed of Swedish player.
“We have a good group of guys. Some of us have been in this situation before and some of us haven’t,” Karlsson said. “Including myself. I don’t think I really realize how big it is sometimes. Maybe that’s a good thing.”
To the surprise of no one, the Swedes do not have a preferred opponent, although Sedin did acknowledge that he thinks the Americans have been the best team in the tournament so far. Either team will represent an enormous obstacle, but not one that cannot be overcome. The Swedes have convincingly overcome their historical inability to play well in big games. And while they have respect for their opponent, whomever it might be, that should not be confused with intimidation.
“We have to be humble about the situation and realize who we’re playing,” Lundqvist said, “but at the same time believe in ourselves and understand we can go for it and do this.”