NIAGARA – Swedish goaltender Robin Lehner has already debuted in the NHL, but the game against Russia on Tuesday was his first ever World U20 performance. And what a performance it was--a 2-0 win.
A quick scouting report on the Swedish team says that there is no Jacob Markström, the goalie who was so dominant at the 2010 U20 in Saskatoon and in 2009 in Ottawa. But now this can be added – they have Robin Lehner, who has never played in Sweden’s top league--and until Tuesday never played in a World Junior game--but who has already been tested in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators.
Lehner made several brilliant saves, especially along the ice, when Russia pounded him with rubber. Apart from the 30 shots he had to handle, the Swedish staff noticed no less than 28 scoring opportunities created by the Russians, who grew more and more desperate by the minute.
Symbolically, Lehner caught the last shot as time expired and he kicked it out with his pad as his teammates skated to mob him.
“He has the potential to become a world-class goaltender,” said coach Roger Rönnberg, who also pointed out that his team won despite being far from perfect. But his goalie was.
“Robin not only makes the saves, but he basically runs our defence the way he communicates with the skaters,” said Rönnberg.
Lehner was also a little bit lucky with eleven minutes left when he committed himself to his right post and Nikita Durechevski had an open net directly in front of him and the puck on his stick, but he fanned on the shot.
“I was, of course, relieved when I saw that the puck went wide, but luck only comes when you’re playing well,” said Lehner, who was selected as his team’s best player.
“I am very satisfied with my game, but all our skaters backchecked really well,” said Lehner. “When the team plays well in front of you, it makes everything so much easier.”
With the win in the tiny but crowded Dwyer Arena close to Niagara Falls, Sweden is 2-0 and has all but qualified for the playoff round.
This while winless Russia is facing what could be one-game qualification to avoid the relegation round when they face the Czech Republic on New Year’s Eve. But they first have to play Norway on Thursday, which also is a must-win game for the Russians.
Neither Russia nor its predecessor Soviet Union has ever had to play in the relegation round in a World U20 Championship. Sweden play the Czechs on Thursday.
Sweden has had easy time with Russia in the IIHF World U20 Championship lately. Since losing 4-2 at home in Leksand in 2007, the Junior Tre Kronor have defeated the Russians 4-1, 5-0, and 2-1 in the last three meetings.
But entering the game without injured forward Gabriel Landeskog was a cause for concern for Swedish management. On a team with solid defence, the forward lines are not deep with pure goal scorers and Landeskog, who arguably has been the best forward in the Ontario Hockey League this season (Kitchener Rangers), was meant to be the go-to guy.
Landeskog injured his foot in the opener against Norway, and his status for the remainder of the championship is unclear. Nevertheless, his teammates seemed determined to get the job done without him.
Sweden took the lead thanks to captain Anton Lander midway through the opening period. Lander, the player with most junior national team games among all Swedes, dug the puck out of the corner, took it right in front and sent a backhander high over Shikin.
Two players are listed as providing assists, but this was as much a solo goal as they possibly can come.
The Swedes padded their advantage with six minutes left in the first, when Calle Järnkrok jumped on a neutral zone turnover by defenceman Nikita Pivtsakin and sent the puck over to Jesper Fasth, who one-timed it for a 2-0 lead.
Both teams changed goalies from their opening games as Robin Lehner debuted for Sweden while Dmitri Shikin somewhat surprisingly got the call at Igor Bobkov’s expense. Lehner was the only player on the ice who this season already has played in the NHL.
Lehner showed at the end of the first period, but also throughout the game, what an asset he is for the team. Trying desperately to cut the lead, the Russian staged a furious assault at the Swedish net, but Lehner made some superb pad saves, especially on a Maxim Kitsyn effort when a Russian goal seemed inevitable.
Also Shikin showed that he is capable at the other end when he made two quick saves. Sebastian Wännström and Oscar Lindberg could have put the game away with a double chance midway through the game, but Shikin was that much better.
This Swedish team doesn’t have the shining stars and game breakers like Magnus Pääjärvi, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Erik Karlsson, Jacob Josefsson or André Petersson, but true to traditional Swedish hockey values, it is a team with plenty of character and good organization.
The games against the Czechs on Thursday and especially the one versus Canada on New Year’s Eve will show the true potential of this group. This will also be the first time that Sweden will leave the smallish college rink to play at HSBC Arena in Buffalo.