Team Sweden came into the tournament as a favorite to make the final. And now it's out because of the way it approached the game.
Let’s get something straight here. Sweden did not lose the semifinal game in the World Cup of Hockey because of a disputed goal in overtime. It did not lose because it failed to score on the power play. It didn’t lose because all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist dropped his stick at one of the most inopportune times of his career.
The Swedish players are heading to NHL training camp instead of the best-of-three final in the World Cup of Hockey because they decided - or probably more accurately, had it decided for them - that they were going to play chess until the third period of their 3-2 overtime loss to Team Europe. They played the game afraid to lose and that’s exactly what happened. It was a display of a dull, turgid, safe and utterly ridiculous brand of hockey given their level of talent that came back to haunt them.
And for that we should all be grateful. Even if you’re Swedish. Because perhaps the people who run the national program in Sweden will go back and realize what an opportunity they frittered by taking a bunch of thoroughbreds and forcing them to trot their way around the track. That’s not how these players play in the NHL. That’s not how they’re wired. Players such as Erik Karlsson have to go and holding them back should not be rewarded.
And it this case it was not. Had Sweden somehow underachieved its way to the World Cup final, it would not have highlighted how absolutely terrible this approach was. Swedish winger Gabriel Landeskog, who told Scott Oake of Hockey Night in Canada after the first period that, “We kind of stood around waiting for each other,” capsulized the game plan right there. Then he added: “We’re in the World Cup of Hockey semifinal. You’re not going to give them anything just to play beautiful hockey.”
Sweden was outshooting Team Europe 10-5 after the first period, then took a 1-0 lead 2:31 into the second. Perhaps thinking one goal would be enough to win, the Swedes eventually shut it down and collapsed, sending the game into a lull of ennui that made it darn near unwatchable. And if they had won, they would have been rewarded for it. But they didn’t, so that’s a good thing. Only after Tomas Tatar made it 2-1 12 seconds into the third period did the Swedes decide they needed to play with just a little more urgency. And by that time, Team Europe goalie Jaroslav Halak had found his groove. If not for a Karlsson floater that hit Roman Josi’s stick, the overtime wouldn’t even have been necessary.
The Swedes obviously saw this game a lot differently than your trusty correspondent did. When asked why with all this talent, and a brain trust that included Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson and Nicklas Lidstrom, his team could play the way it did, Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg responded by saying he thought his team played well.
“I don’t think we were passive. I think you’re wrong there,” Gronborg said. “We need to show patience, and I think we showed patience. But at the end of the day when they’re scoring six goals against us in an exhibition game, we didn’t show patience. That’s what happens. This is a very good team we’re playing against. What we wanted to do was obviously make sure we don’t get turnovers and we don’t get odd-man rushes against, and I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight. We put ourselves in a position of winning this game. In the offensive zone we don’t put reins on our players. We don’t put defensive assignments in the offensive zone. So I don’t think I agree with you there.”
Looks like we weren’t watching the same game. Nobody said the Swedes had to get all turnover happy and turn the game into a round of pond hockey, but at some point, don’t you realize you’re better than the other team and play to your strengths. The Swedes lost 6-2 to Team Europe in the final pre-tournament game and instead of using that game as a lesson on how to manage the puck better, it responding by thinking it couldn’t try anything creative.
“That’s what teams have done against them and that’s why they lost against this team,” Daniel Sedin said. “They’ve been playing a full-out attack and you can’t do that against this team. They want us to make mistakes and we played a patient game thinking it was going to pay off in the end and it didn’t. It’s easy to say after the game that we should have attacked more.”
Actually, it was quite easy during the game to say that. Anyone who was watching could see where that game was going. And the fact the way it went the way it did is a setback for Sweden, but a triumph for the game. Sweden teased us all tournament, telling us they still hadn't played their best game. They certainly didn't do that Sunday and now they won't have a chance to do it again in the World Cup.