It was a hockey version of David and Goliath and this time, Goliath won.
Sweden overcame a sluggish first two periods to knock off Slovenia 5-0 in the quarterfinals of the men’s hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics. Sweden faces Finland on Friday in the semifinals.
Slovenia, playing in the quarterfinals for the first time, put on a defensive show that choked the Swede’s high-flying attack. The Slovenes grabbed jerseys, sticks and anything else they could to keep Swedish forwards from skating past them and a fierce forecheck to grind down the Tre Kronor’s game. The Slovenes also relied on their goaltender, Robert Kristan, the way Sweden relied on its net minder, Henrik Lundqvist. The difference was Robert Kristan played like Robert Kristan while Lundqvist played like King Henrik.
Lundqvist stood tall in the first period as Slovenia stunned Sweden with its physical play. Although he only faced six shots, all of came with traffic in front of the net. He stopped Slovenia’s only NHL player, Anze Kopitar, twice when Kopitar tried wrap-around shots to keep the game scoreless. Lundqvist finished with 19 saves for his second shutout at the 2014 Games.
After weathering the Slovenian storm, Sweden began to assert itself. Alexander Steen ended the scoreless deadlock at 18:50 of the first period as Sweden’s revamped repaid the confidence of head coach Par Martz. With Jan Musrak off for a hooking minor, Steen took a pass from linemate Daniel Alfredsson and slid the puck past Kristan for a 1-0 lead.
The second period was much like the first. Sweden outshot Slovenia 12-7 but could not find a way past Kristan. The third period was a blow out. Slovenia was clearly tiring and the higher skill level of the Swedes began to assert itself. Daniel Sedin scored at 1:43 of the third period off an assist from Loui Eriksson to put Sweden up 2-0. Eriksson made it 3-0 seven minutes later as he beat Kopitar with a follow-up on a Niklas Backstrom shot. New York Rangers forward Carl Hagelin scored two goals late in the period as the game turned somewhat nasty.
The Slovenes, sensing the game slipping away from them, tried to play more physically than the Swedes which led to what Hagelin said were a number of cheap shots. Hagelin took an elbow in the face from Sabahudin Kovacevic that left him dazed and bloody. Hagelin said it was a dirty hit.
“The puck was behind me and he elbowed me in the head,” he said. “I’m fine. Woke me up, hopefully.”
Hagelin recovered to score his two goals.
Lundqvist, who won the 2012 Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, continued to blank the Slovenes, just as he had stymied every other opponent. The New York Rangers goalie’s two shutout at Sochi are two more shutout than he had in 2006 when he led Sweden to gold at the Torino Games.
“I learned so much over the years in New York,” he said. “I changed my game a lot. That was my first year in the league, and I changed my game that year, being very aggressive to playing more deep in the net and crease.”
On Friday, Sweden and Finland renew a rivalry that is as heated as any in sport, Martz kicked it up a notch following Sweden’s win when he predicted Russia would beat Finland. He was wrong. The next day, Marts insisted he didn't regret honestly responding to a query about his possible opponents that most coaches usually dodge.
"I'm not like the other ones," Marts said. "I had a question and I answered it. That's my way."
And, Marts doesn't seem to care if he fired up the Finns.
"I can't do anything about it," Marts said.
No, he can't.
Finland coach Erkka Westerlund declined to react to what Marts said after he helped his team beat the host Russians, and was only slightly more forthcoming the following day.
"After the game," Westerlund said with a coy smile, "he knew who won the game."
While everyone knows how the Swedes and Finns feel about each other in Europe, fewer do in North America.
"It's a love-hate relationship — definitely," Tre Kronor defenseman Niklas Kronwall said.
The usually soft-spoken Swede also didn't mince words when asked who he expected to win the other rivalry game in the semifinals with the Canadians and Americans.
"I don't know what it is, but it just feels like the U.S. has had a real good tournament so far," Kronwall said. "It seems like everyone is on the same page. It's going to be a tight game, but I think that maybe the U.S. will take this one."
Kronwall laughed when told he sounded like his straight-shooting coach.
"Canada, you can never count them out," he said upon further review. "They somehow seem to find a way to get the wins."
The Swedes won it all at the 2006 Turin Games, beating Finland 3-2 after Nicklas Lidstrom scored 10 seconds into the third period and Lundqvist made enough stops to seal the victory. While Lidstrom, one of the best defenseman of all time, has retired and is living back home in Sweden, Lundqvist is still kicking shots away and believes he is even better than he was eight years ago.
Sweden had not won an Olympic medal before that game in Italy with NHL players and hasn't earned one since, finishing fifth at the Vancouver Games after beating Finland 3-0 in the preliminary round.
The Finns, meanwhile, have won more medals (three) than any other nation since Olympics began including the best hockey players in the world and yet no one seems to be talking about them entering the tournament. They beat Sweden 2-1 in the 1998 Nagano Games quarterfinals, the first with NHL players, and went on to win bronze.
"Every time we go into tournaments like this we're disrespected," Finland forward Olli Jokinen said. "But the good thing for our country, no matter what names are on the back, Finland's going to play the same way no matter who we have here. We could have 20 different guys here and the results would be the same.
"Finland's going to play Finland's way."
The Finnish way to play is to avoid making mistakes with the puck and to push opponents to the outside of the wide, international rink where quality scoring chances are limited. That's usually a successful style, especially when Finland as a good goaltender as it does now with Tuukka Rask.
Sweden has a good goalie, too, and an offensive-minded game plan that includes attacking up the ice when it has the puck with tape-to-tape passing to set up slap and wrist shots.
"We need to go for the win," Marts said. "And, not play not to lose."

By Chipp Reid