Can Canada stave off Sweden?

Four-time champs have (slim) golden advantage on home ice

05.01.2009
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Sweden hopes for a different result in this rematch of the 2008 final. Photo: IIHF/HHoF

OTTAWA - Tonight’s gold-medal game between Canada and Sweden will close out the 2009 IIHF World U20 Championship. Canada has won the last four editions of the event, including an OT affair against Sweden last year, and the Swedes haven’t won gold since 1981.

If the Swedes win tonight, they will be doing something they’ve done only once before--beat Canada in Canada. In fact, in ten previous meetings in North America, Canada has won eight. The only exceptions were a 5-4 Swedish win in 1989 when the tournament was held in Anchorage, Alaska, and in 1978 when Sweden won 6-5 in Montreal.

Perhaps this time will be different? The normally quiet Swedes have made some bold statements in recent days. Head coach Par Marts has said, “We came here to win gold,” and one of his players, Magnus Svensson-Paajarvi supposedly said, “If we get up 2-0, Canada will {poop] their pants,” a statement he later denied to avoid giving Canada any additional motivation.

CANADA: Both the tangibles and intangibles favour Canada to some degree, but there are several mitigating factors which might come into play during the gold-medal game. First, goalie Dustin Tokarski has created significant worries for fans who have watched him allow nine goals in the last two games. His shaky play has seen only three moments of real greatness, the first an amazing glove save on an open-net chance by American Colin Wilson, and then the two shootout stops against the Russians two nights ago. Tokarski simply must raise his level of play today.

On defence, Russia exposed weaknesses of Canada’s blueline corps that had not previously been as apparent. For starters, Canada’s defencemen overplayed their positions, leaving their area of responsibility to make a big hit or because they got nervous or anxious. As soon as one man moves out of position, the whole defensive stability of the team goes out of whack. Calm, disciplined play in Canada's own end is essential tonight against a Swedish team that moves the puck around well.

The Canadian forwards have been the most dangerous in the tournament on balance, and Canada holds a huge 41-26 advantage in goals scored. However, 15 of those goals came against Kazakhstan. As well, Canada has an incredible 19 power-play goals on just 37 chances, but again, eight of those goals came against the Kazakhs. Against the Russians, Canada was a weak 1-for-7 and missed several chances to put the game out of reach with a timely man-advantage goal. Led by John Tavares, the power play must get back on track.

Regardless, Canada can score. And, of course, the team has had two tough games against the Americans and Russians to prepare them for tonight. These tough games are key to bringing a team together, and that's something Sweden hasn’t had in its much easier march to the finals, even if you count some edgy moments whilst trying to solve Slovakian goalie Jaroslav Janus in the semi-finals.

Finally, the pro-Canadian crowd might be a huge bonus for the Canadians. An early goal would go a long way to keeping them an intimidating presence. All in all, the table is set for a fifth gold in a row, but this is not an easy Swedish team. If the Canadians win, they'll need to have earned it.

SWEDEN: On paper, the Swedes have a more balanced team. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom has been excellent, giving the team confident goaltending. He has allowed just five goals in four games and 109 shots, but he will certainly have to be at his best against the best shooters he’s had to face all tournament if Sweden is to win. He’s the better goalie, but he hasn’t been fully tested yet. Advantage Sweden.

The Swedish defence perhaps isn’t as flashy as Canada’s. It has no “Twin Towers” or spectacular rusher like P.K. Subban, but it does have Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson. Hedman entered this tournament neck-and-neck with Tavares in the race to become the first overall pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, but he has certainly been outplayed by Tavares here in Ottawa. Nonetheless, he is a skilled defenceman. Karlsson has been more impressive, though. He leads the team with nine points (seven assists), and he also has a +7 rating, second best on the team. His ability to move the puck, and his skill on the power play, have gone a long way to determining Sweden’s success. Given that the team has allowed just six goals in five games and can create offence from the back end, the slight advantage on the blueline must go to Sweden (although Canada holds a 23-20 advantage in points from their defencemen).

Sweden’s forwards will have to be exceptional today if the team is to win gold. Mikael Backlund leads the team with five goals, but as a group, the offence certainly isn’t as potent as Canada’s. More significantly, the team has yet to play a game in which the physical element has been a determining factor. They will tonight. If they can’t take hard and frequent checks, they don’t stand a chance. (That being said, this year's edition of Team Canada is not as physical as any of its four championship predecessors.) The Swedes will have to do what the Russians did—break down Canada’s defence with speed and quick passes, and hope Tokarski continues his shaky play.

Of course, the other factor, the great intangible, is the Canadian crowd. None of these Swedes have ever played before 20,000 fans cheering for the other team, and how they react to the roar of the crowd, the rattling of the Plexiglas, and the relentless pressure of Canada’s forwards will be deciding factors. They also must try to forget that Canada has won the last four gold medals, and they must use the “revenge” motivation properly as they try to beat Canada the way the Canadians beat them a year ago in the gold-medal game.

In the end, Canada’s experience and will to win give it the edge before the puck drop, but Canada has proved to be a far-from-perfect team this year. The game is up for grabs. A Canadian win would be no surprise, but a Swedish victory wouldn't be a shocker either.

ANDREW PODNIEKS
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