UFA – Why is it that when Sweden wins a big game there always is a bit of a feeling that the team pulled off an upset?
The nation has been just about the most consistent nation in the last 20 years at all levels and has produced as many world-class NHLers as just about any country, yet it does so with a quiet humility that keeps the team just a little bit under the radar.
Yet the last time the Swedes lost a U20 game was exactly two years ago tomorrow, January 5, 2011, in the bronze-medal game. Since then they have won eleven games in a row.
And, in the last three U20 tournaments, all coached by the erudite Roger Rönnberg, the Swedes are 7-1 in games that go beyond regulation time. Their run to gold last year was highlighted by four wins in overtime or shootout, including the gold-medal game against the Russians.
Indeed, immediately after yesterday’s “surprise” win over the host Russians, 3-2 in another shootout, Rönnberg admitted, “We practice the shootout a lot because we know against the best teams this is often how games are won and lost. You have to be prepared.”
He also divulged another nugget that both fascinates and confuses. Prior to the start of yesterday’s shootout, goalie Niklas Lundström actually declined help from the bench.
“We knew who would shoot and what the Russian players would do in the shootout,” Rönnberg told, “but when we asked Niklas if he wanted help, he said no.” Defying logic, Lundström stopped all three Russians for the win, just as he had stopped all three Swiss in a preliminary round game.
The Swedes just win. Not much fanfare. No capes or end-to-end rushes or great predictions. They just go out there and put up one more goal on the scoreboard than their opponents.
How? One thing that Sweden does better than any other team is play a combination of NHL-North American-ice style and European, big-ice style. They can skate and pass like a European team on the big sheet, but they are also the best team in the tournament at taking ice away from an opponent, checking the other team not with big hits but with closing lanes and gaps. No-leak hockey, you might call it.
“We have to play aggressive from the start. We have to play with passion from the start,” Rönnberg said.
“The Americans have a really good team, with good defencemen,” forward Viktor Arvidsson noted. “They score a lot of goals, and they’re good in the offensive zone. I think we have to play hard on their defence and keep the puck to ourselves.”
The Swedes and Americans will be making history of their own tomorrow. The teams have never played for a gold medal at U20, but that doesn’t mean there is no rivalry here. They have twice played for bronze on the final day, the Americans winning both. In 2007 they won, 2-1, and in 2011 they again doubled the score, 4-2.
More significant, the teams have met in the last three U18 finals, the Americans winning each time. Several players from both sides who have experienced the glory of watching their own flag go up or the agony of watching another nation’s flag rise will be playing for gold tomorrow.
“They have a really good team this year,” said Sebastian Collberg, who played at the 2012 U18 when the U.S. won the gold-medal game in a 7-0 cakewalk. “They’re playing really well in the whole tournament. At the last three U18 tournaments, we have lost to them. So the 1993- and 1994-born players want to win the final against them. A lot of revenge, I would say!”
One unknown factor will be the crowd. It has been solidly behind the Russian team, of course, but since it will be fighting Canada for bronze earlier in the day, it remains to be seen who will get the cheers and whistles for gold. In truth, the Americans might actually have the home crowd on its side because of Alex Galchenyuk, a U.S. player of Russian origin who has received plenty of cheers when his name has been called over the loudspeaker.
Geographically and politically, though, the Swedes will certainly get plenty of their own support, one would think.
We can’t know how the game will turn out, but we can know that with a winning streak of eleven in a row, under a coach that knows what he’s doing, this Swedish team will be hard to beat.