QUEBEC CITY – It’s a year of reruns. Both semi-final matchups are the same as last year. Canada meets Sweden, the land of system hockey. Shane Doan is the Canadian captain, Kenny Jonsson the captain of Team Sweden. Canada beats Sweden 4-1.
Well, that would be getting ahead of things.
Last year's no-name Sweden has become this year’s one-name Sweden, but the rest of their game is like last year, says Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock.
"Their team is so well coached and structured. They’re the best team without the puck in the tournament, and they look like they’d played together for years," he says.
"They have a core group of players who have played a lot of competitions together, they’re five-men units, who play the same game offensively and defensively, where every line does the some thing. That can break teams down. That’s why they’re here, they’ve broken teams down," he adds.
One of coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson’s strengths is creating the team spirit, a nice and relaxed atmosphere that helps players focus and get the most out of themselves. That brought Sweden the Olympic gold and World Championship in 2006. That brought them to the semifinal against Canada last year.
"For us, it’s not a matter of one or two guys. It's the whole team," says Gustafsson, and is echoed by everybody on the Swedish team. The team. The team. Together.
"The Swedes have the best team play of the four teams left. They have the best continuity. We think we can beat them, but we have a big job ahead of us," says Hitchcock.
Being the underdog is what the Swedes cherish. The Swedes always like to see themselves as the underdogs. That way, winning would make them overachievers.
"There’s no question that we're the underdogs here but why would you want to be the favourite? We’re here now, and they’re the favourites, but I like our chances,” says Gustafsson.
In a no-name team, there is one Swedish name everybody knows. Henrik Lundqvist.
Even if Gustafsson likes to bring the team together by making everybody feel important, don’t expect him to do what Leif Boork did in the second 1984 Canada Cup final when he surprised everybody by starting Gote Walitalo, who hadn't played practically at all in the tournament. No, Mikael Tellqvist won’t show up between the pipes in the semifinal.
Lundqvist, the 26-year-old Vezina candidate, brought with him excellent goaltending and a lot of confidence. The Swedes have been a different team since the arrival of Lundqvist.
“We know what Lundqvist does and how he plays, we have all the reports,” says Hitchcock.
“You have to spend some time on focusing how to beat him. The goalie is arguably the most important player on any team and even if it’s not a playoff series, but just one game, you still have to have a focal point. That includes shootouts, too. Players have to have that info,” he says.
While Canada tries to find a way to beat the Swedish hockey machine, the one big name in Team Sweden, is facing a mighty machine himself as goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist gets ready to meet The Big Line, Dany Heatley - Ryan Getzlaf - Rick Nash, which has combined for 17 goals and 39 points – with Heatley scoring ten goals – in seven games.
Canada, as a team, has scored the most goals in the tournament, 43, and has only 12 goals scored against it, fewest in the tournament.
The Big Line may just face a little easier task thanks to a nagging knee problem Lundqvist has had since Game 4 in the New York Rangers’ series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“No, they’re not in 100 percent shape,” he says.
“I’m in a lot pain, but playing won’t worsen the injury so it’s mostly a mental problem for me. If I couldn’t play my best game, I wouldn’t play at all,” he adds.
Lundqvist knows what to expect in the game against Canada. He knows their players from the NHL, and the style of hockey he’ll be facing in the semifinal game.
“They’re excellent, skilled players who like to move around and change positions on the ice, and they have a great powerplay,” he says.
“That said, I don’t think they’ll be comfortable with our style when they have to control the game. I think we can match their physical play, we have guys who love to get physical on our team, too,” he said.
However, it’s still Team Canada. And the team has its own machine-like tendencies. Like coach Hitchcock’s way of rotating the goalies, taking turns in starting them. Today, it’s Pascal Leclaire’s turn.
“We continue the rotation. I didn’t even know how many games there were in the tournament when I started Cam Ward in the first exhibition game. I was going to play both goalies, and the plan is to play Ward in the final,” Hitchcock says.
But first, the semi-final.
“The stress of getting here is gone now. We had families and a lot of other people waiting for us in Quebec City. It was stressful. Now that stress is all gone, now it’s just the pressure of competition and that’s something our players know. They’ve been in the playoffs before,” says Hitchcock.
“It’s a game with no tomorrow, it’s do or die. We haven’t really had that yet. This is like Game 7 in the playoffs and the intensity gets me excited,” said Martin St. Louis, who has picked up nine points in seven games.
Henrik Lundqvist against the Big Line cannons.
Canadian NHL stars against one-name Team Sweden arm-locked in the neutral zone.
May the best man win. Or machine.