William Nylander (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect William Nylander is part of a new breed of Swedish player, one who expects his country to win medals at the World Junior Championship. One more victory and that possibility will become a reality for the high-scoring Swedes.
The Swedes have qualified for the semifinal at the World Junior Championship. And in other news, the Beatles have broken up, water is still wet, overeating can lead to weight gain and Facebook has been officially confirmed as the biggest waste of time in the history of the world.
Much is made of the pressure on Canada’s teenagers to win this tournament. Just watch tonight’s telecast and you’ll be reminded of that a couple hundred times. In fact, if you don’t watch yourself, you could be convinced into thinking that Canada is the only team that wants to win it every year. But the Swedes, on the heels of their 6-3 win over Finland in the quarterfinal, are doing a pretty good job of convincing the world they expect to be a perennial medal contender in this event as well.
By clinching an appearance in the semifinal, Sweden has made it to the final four of the WJC in each of the past nine tournaments. Included in that are one gold medal, four silvers and a bronze. And as long as teams continue to be foolish enough to take penalties against them, there’s a good chance the medal haul will continue in 2015. All the Swedes have to do now is defeat Russia in the semifinal, the same team they defeated 3-2 during the preliminary round, and at least a silver medal is assured.
If you give a 5-3-1 score for gold, silver and bronze, respectively, Sweden tops the past five years with 12 points. Russia has 10, USA nine and Canada just seven. No wonder Sweden goes into this tournament with its typical quiet confidence.
“We know how good we are,” said William Nylander, a Toronto Maple Leaf prospect and apparently, the first cocky Swede who has ever lived. “You want to set your standards high because you expect a lot more of yourself.”
That was not always the case with the Swedes, who would often come to this tournament hoping to do well and sometimes being successful, but not being terribly upset when they lost. Sweden now has the mentality that both North American teams and the Russians have that anything short of a gold medal is considered a disappointment. That’s actually consistent with the attitude most Swedish NHL players have. Great guys, polite as anyone you’ll ever find, but competitive as all heck.
“We’re pretty humble,” said Vancouver Canucks prospect and defenseman Gustav Forsling, who scored his third of the tournament. “We do all the hard stuff like block shots and backcheck. It’s in the group. We have some pretty good character here.”
And, as always, Sweden is as skilled as any team you’re going to find in the tournament. The game against Finland was Sweden’s fifth of the tournament and the fourth in which they had scored five or more goals. Overall, Sweden has outscored its opponents by a 24-9 margin. Three of the goals Sweden scored against Finland came on the power play, albeit with two of them coming 5-on-3. But the biggest difference between the Finns and the Swedes was that the Finns, as determined and persistent as they are, simply did not have the skill level the Swedes had. Finland, in fact, failed to score a single power play in the tournament and went 0-for-5 with the man advantage.
Much of the success of the Swedish power play comes from Forsling’s low, hard and accurate shot, which is complemented by Nylander’s ability to feed him the puck. Much of the Swedish thrust with the man advantage comes from up high rather than in front of the net. Like Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall, Forsling has the ability to find his way through traffic with his shot.
“We play where they give us the open space,” Nylander said. “If they’re giving us space up top, why do you want to force it down low? We just want to keep it simple and make easy plays.”
The only thing standing between Sweden and a spot in the gold medal game for the fourth straight year is the Russians, a team that has truly been an enigma. The Russians needed a shootout to beat Denmark in its opening game, should have beat the Swedes and lost and looked terrible in a 4-1 loss to the Czech Republic in their final preliminary game.
“They want to have the puck and we want to have the puck,” said Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg. “We have to get a plan together to have more pucks than them because they have really good transition. Half of the game we played against them here they had us on our heels because their guys did such a good job of joining the rush and that’s something we have to shut down.”