COLOGNE – Mats Zuccarello Aasen, one of Norway’s leading forwards, said it first after their game against Switzerland in the Olympics, which they did lose 5-4, but in overtime. He referred to his team as “little Norway”. He repeated it after their qualification playoff game against Slovakia, another loss, after another close game: “I’m really proud of the team, we worked really hard, and to think that little Norway can push mighty Slovakia like that. We have a little ways to go.”
Norway has been the designated potential upset team in the World Championships for a few years now, pushing the other teams, and making their games against Norway really sweaty ones. They haven’t been able to close those games, though. That is the next - big - step for Norwegian hockey.
With the core of the Olympic team returning to duty at the World Championship, the German adventure may be their golden opportunity.
Little Mats’s little Norway can come up big.
The Norwegian net is Pål Grotnes’s, as it has been for the past years. Grotnes played his team’s all four games in Vancouver, and while his tournament save percentage was a measly 87.25, he was up to the task in Norway’s games against Switzerland and Slovakia.
Andre Lysenstøen from the Finnish Mestis, a second-tier league, and Ruben Smith will be backing up, and playing any leftover minutes that are available. The World Championship is a little longer tournament, so Lysenstøen may get his chance, as he did in Switzerland in 2009.
The lone NHLer on the team, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, was suspended for three games for the hit to the head he delivered on Slovakia’s Lubos Bartecko on February 23, 2010 in the men’s Olympic game. Norway will have to get by the preliminary round without him, but he’ll be a welcome addition to the lineup when the big games begin.
He finished his North American season with the AHL’s Grand Rapid Griffins, who did not make the playoffs, making Tollefsen available for the World Championship.
Jonas Holøs played close to 29 minutes a game in the Olympics, and he will be expected to carry a big load in Germany as well, just like veteran defenceman Tommy Jakobsen, 39, who played his first World Championship already in 1992.
Second-generation national team player Patrick Thoresen led the team in scoring in the Olympics with five assists in four games. His linemates, Mats Zuccarello Aasen and Tore Vikingstad, collected three and four points, respectively. That line was practically Norway’s entire offensive threat, and to be able to beat high-ranked teams, Norway will need secondary scoring.
The second line’s Mathis Olimb and Anders Bastiansen, who, like six other forwards, play in the Swedish Elitserien, will have to step up. And the first line, now without Tore Vikingstad, and with Anders Fredriksen instead, will have to keep on scoring goals.
Mats Zuccarello Aasen was the leading scorer in the Swedish Elitserien this season, and the winner of the Golden Helmet, the league’s most valuable player as voted by his peers, and in Vancouver, he made his major international breakthrough.
Like the rest of the team, “the Hobbit” will now have to build on that, and keep going upward, not slip back. His personal development will reportedly continue in the NHL next season.
With the exit of Switzerland’s Ralph Krueger, Roy Johansen is now the longest-serving national team coach in the top division. The former Team Norway player - he played in three Olympics, 1984, 1988, and 1988 - has coached the national side since 2001 and has been integral in bringing the club towards the top, qualifying to the Olympics and becoming a potential threat to the big nations.
An optimist would predict a quarterfinal, a pessimist relegation round. Heaven and hell. Realistically, Norway’s key game in the preliminary round is the one against France, to guarantee they will avoid the pressure cooker that is the relegation round.
Just as realistically, though, Norway is the favourite to win that game and to then go on and tease the big nations.
With a full-on jackpot tournament, Norway will play in the quarterfinal, and keep moving forward on their path.