Henrik Lundqvist (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
As deep as any nation at forward defense and in goal, comfortable on big ice and under less pressure than the host Russians, the Tre Kronor have a lot going for them and look to be a lock to at least medal.
In 2006, the Swedes won gold after controversially losing (some say tanking) a round-robin game to Slovakia that got the Tre Kronor a favorable quarterfinal draw against the Swiss. In 2010, karma struck when those same Slovakians beat the Swedes in the quarterfinal, so this year the powerful Nordic nation will be looking to make amends. The Swedes have the horses to do it and though they have spectacularly bombed out of the Olympics in the past – the infamous quarterfinal loss to Belarus in 2002 comes to mind – this team will have a lot of youthful energy.
The Swedes will easily be in the mix for a gold medal thanks to a deep and varied squad led by numerous NHL superstars. Even without the injured Sedin, the Swedes still feature superstar Henriks Zetterberg and Lundqvist, not to mention Henrik Sedin's twin brother, Daniel. Their experience will help balance off a new wave of stars that is primed to join them in that top echelon, such as Erik Karlsson, Nicklas Backstrom and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Sweden has talent in net, on defense and up front. The fact several players come from the same NHL teams (Sedin and Alexander Edler in Vancouver, too many players to mention in Detroit) also bodes well for chemistry.
Most intriguing about the Swedish attack is how varied it can be. Daniel Sedin is a master of the cycle, while Backstrom is a scintillating playmaker and Zetterberg an all-round force who can break plays, but also cancels out danger in his own zone. Even a hypothetical shutdown line featuring Alex Steen of the Blues (now producing at a superstar scoring clip, ironically enough) and young Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog would be the type of unit just as dangerous with the puck as it is without it, meaning teams won’t be able to rest when they play Sweden. This is a squad that will be able to roll lines in waves.
Sweden’s blueline corps will be fairly different than the one that flamed out in 2010. Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson are not yet 25, but play key roles for their NHL franchises. With Victor Hedman omitted from the roster, there won’t be a lot of grit or physicality among the young stars, though Niklas Kronwall is pretty decent in that category. They’ll certainly be able to swing the puck up the ice with aplomb, but can they suck it up and get it back if bigger, nastier teams toss the biscuit into the corner?
Overall, it’s gold or bust for Sweden. Expectations will be high from outsiders and those within the Scandinavian nation will be even more on edge. Keep in mind this is a country whose press associated the national team with criminals when the squad failed at the 2002 Olympics, giving the players fake mug shots and listing their salaries.
Having said that, the Swedes are incredibly talented on paper and don’t have as much pressure as the home-team Russians, so the Tre Kronor will be among the favorites, but won’t be spooked by attention.
WHAT HAS TO GO RIGHT
Losing Henrik Sedin hurts, but the Swedes still have great depth and virtually every one of their forwards is defensively responsible, so this team will be exhausting to play against. Because the ‘D’ lacks brawn, it has to neutralize opponents with strong positional play, just as the retired Nicklas Lidstrom did. The 2006 gold medal team was anchored by steady goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist and will need him at his best to give Sweden the edge it’s supposed to have over most nations in net. Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson will generate offense from the back end.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG
If the referees decide to let ’em play, Sweden could get pushed around in this tournament. Its defense corps isn’t made of pussycats by any means, but lacks a menacing presence after Niklas Kronwall. How will this unit respond with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Dustin Brown and Corey Perry bludgeoning them in the corners? And can the Swedish forwards overpower a Shea Weber or Zdeno Chara on the forecheck? Also, judging by this season alone, the Swedes are shakier than normal in goal, as Lundqvist has endured an up-and-down season with the Rangers.
THN PREDICTION: 3rd
WHAT HAPPENED IN VANCOUVER 2010
It wasn’t he encore the Swedes expected after winning gold in 2006. They dominated group play, beating Finland, Belarus and Germany by a combined 9-2 margin. Sweden qualified second overall and drew a quarterfinal matchup with Slovakia, who finished 1-1-1. The Slovaks managed to upset the stacked Swedish squad. The Tre Kronor went on to finish fifth overall for the third time in the past four Olympics.
A BRIEF OLYMPIC HISTORY
Widely considered the best Scandinavian player of his generation, Sven ‘Tumba’ Johansson is regarded as the grandfather of Swedish hockey, playing in four separate Olympic tournaments during the 1950s and ’60s. Tumba’s most impressive stat is the 25 goals he registered in that span, ranking him third all-time. He also sits fourth all-time in games played with 29. Johansson played a key role in attaining Sweden’s first medal in 20 years, scoring eight goals in the 1952 Oslo Games en route to a bronze. He added another 11 points in Innsbruck, Austria, 12 years later.