No-name Swedes look to defend hockey title.
Despite missing nearly all of their NHL stars, the Tre Kronor are in the thick of the fight for the 2010 Ice Hockey World Cup.
By Chipp Reid
Four years ago, Sweden pulled off a feat no one ever managed in ice hockey. The Tre Kronor won both the Olympic gold medal and the International Ice Hockey Federation World Cup in the same year.
Sweden benefited from a strong cast of North American-based skaters that not only played in the Torino Games but joined the national team as their NHL teams lost in the playoffs.
This time around might not be so easy as most of the Swedes in the NHL said a polite “nej” to the Tre Kronor when head coach Bengt-Åke Gustafsson asked them to play in the World Cup, which runs from May 6-23 in Mannheim, Germany.
Some of the big names Sweden had at the Vancouver Olympics in February but are missing now in Germany are goalie Henrik Lundqvist, defensemen Johnny Oduwa, Nicklas Lidström and forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik and Daniel Sedin and the iconic Peter Forsberg.
Perhaps the biggest surprise—or disappointment—is only one of the seven Swedes playing for the Detroit Red Wings chose to continue their 2009-10 season by playing for the national team. Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson joined the Tre Kronor just in time to help the Swedes beat Canada 3-1 on May 16, but his six Red Wings teammates also chose to sit out the tournament as they nursed injuries picked up during the NHL season.
Even more surprisingly, Washington Capital winger Niklas Bäckström, after signing a $40 million extension with the Caps, told Gustafsson he, too, would miss the World Cup. Bäckström said he picked up an ankle injury during Washington’s six-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. Bäckström had nine points in six playoffs games for Washington and racked up 101 points in the regular season.
“It’s clear that we aren’t favorites going into the World Cup,” Gustafsson said. “We go to Germany as clear underdogs.
Gustafsson selected a team of mostly European-based players, the same group that finished dead last in the Four Nations Cup, the annual tournament between Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. Those poor performances, however, didn’t worry Gustafsson, who is coaching his final tournament for Sweden as the national team head coach.
“Maybe it’s good that we’re going in as underdogs,” said Gustafsson, who is likely to find a job in the NHL next year. “We have nothing to lose.”
Sweden opened the tournament with a 5-2 win over Norway on May 9 as Mattias Weinhandl had a hat trick to lead the Tre Kronor. Weinhandl, who plays for Dynamo Moscow in the Russian Continental League, also played in the Vancouver Games, where he skated on a line with the Sedin brothers. The Tre Kronor next beat France 3-2 on May 11 before losing 2-1 to the Czechs on May 13. Despite the loss, Sweden won its qualifying group and was one of 12 teams to advance to the preliminary round.
Sweden, playing in group F, opened the second round with a comfortable 4-2 win over Latvia on May 15. Two days later, the Tre Kronor faced Canada, the team that beat Sweden in three straight World Cup finals since 2007 and two World Junior Hockey Championships finals in 2008 and 2009.
Despite the history between the two teams, the game May 16 was somewhat tame, with just one minor penalty in three periods. Jonas Andersson, who plays for Dynamo Minsk in the RCL, was the hero as he scored two quick goals in the second period to propel the Swedes to a 3-1 win.
The win put Sweden in a tie for first place in Group F with nine points with the Swiss, but Switzerland has a game in hand. Canada is in third place with six points.
"I think you always want to beat a team like Canada," said Jonathan Ericsson. "It was huge for us. It was a good test, and we've made it through to the quarterfinals. We're still going to try to win our group and give ourselves the best opportunity to make it as far as possible."
Opening goal by Harju
Johan Harju got the opening goal for the Swedes on two miscues by defenseman Kris Russell. First, he threw a dangerous pass up the left wing which was intercepted at center ice, and then he came off the ice right away, leaving that wing entirely open. Harju walked in and drilled a wrist shot to goalie Chris Mason’s stick side, beating him for a 1-0 Tre Kronor lead just 2:35 into the game.
Like Sweden, Canada is missing several of the big-name stars that led them to the gold medal at the Vancouver games. The biggest—Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins—announced the day before the game that he would not play in the World Cup.
After the Harju goal, the Swedes then did what they do best: play a style of hockey in which they kill the clock while neither generating many scoring chances nor giving up many. Canada had a tough time moving the puck with any fluidity into the Swedish end, and Mason had few tough saves to make. The penalty-free period passed uneventfully.
The Swedes made it 2-0 just 1:47 into the second period as a result of two more errors.
First, defenseman Brent Burns pinched in at the Swedish blueline by diving wildly to check his man, falling to the ice, losing his stick and ending way out of position. Then, Andersson came down the right wing and backed into the boards as the left-hand shot tossed the puck on net. It beat Mason weakly to the far side.
Andersson came right back 3:04 later to make it a 3-0 game. He took a shot at the point that went wide and followed play to the slot. In the meantime, Niklas Persson scooped up the loose puck and fired it back to Andersson in the slot who ripped it over Mason’s shoulder before defenseman Tyler Myers could read the play.
Brooks Laich finally gave the Canadian fans something to cheer about seven minutes into the third period. Fredrik Pettersson failed to handle a breakout pass at his blueline and Laich stole the puck, waltzed in on goal unmolested, and deked goalie Jonas Gustavsson beautifully to make it a 3-1 game.
"I thought they were going to come out and forecheck harder than they did," Gustavsson admitted. "At the same time, we played pretty well. We tried to match them, and we did a really good job."
The victory gave the no-name Swedish team a huge boost as they became one of three teams to reach the quarterfinals on May 17. Switzerland and Russia also booked passage to the next round.
“It is clear that this was important for our confidence,” Gustafsson said. “We have not beaten Canada for a few years now. It is the same for all teams. It’s important we show what we can do. In this way, it was good to show that we can beat them.”
While he savored the victory, Gustafsson was under no illusions the win over Canada would turn his young team into a powerhouse.
“We are still not ready for a World Cup final,” Gustafsson said. “If anything, this tournament has shown that everybody can beat everybody. It is probably only the Russians who are in a class by themselves. Plus, there is no guarantee that you can move on from the quarterfinals.”
Sweden played Switzerland May 18, too late for publication. For the latest results from the IIHF World Cup, see our Web site at www.nordstjernan.com.