STOCKHOLM – Things have certainly brightened for Norwegian hockey since the start of the new millennium. At the 2000 IIHF World Championship in Russia, Norway nipped Canada 4-3, and it was deemed a monumental upset. It would still be a surprise today, but the Norwegians are no longer considered automatic pushovers.
Under head coach Roy Johansen, Norway has finished in the top nine in three of the last four IIHF World Championships. Coming sixth in Slovakia last year marked the Nordic nation’s best-ever result in the modern era. (Norway came sixth in 1950, fourth in 1951, and fifth in 1962.) The journey to that latest quarter-final berth featured victories over tough foes like Sweden and Switzerland.
How did that success come about? Hard work, commitment to the team concept, an excellent power play (clicking at 22.2 percent in 2011), and often-stellar goaltending. All those factors must be in place if Norway, possessing just 41 indoor rinks and under 2,000 registered male players, is to achieve another impressive finish in this Olympic seeding year.
There’s a youth movement in the Norwegian goal crease. Expect 25-year-old Lars Haugen to carry the load for the second straight year. His 2.70 GAA and 92.6 save percentage in Slovakia 2011 reflected how essential he was to the team’s progress. Haugen saw time with the KHL’s Dynamo Minsk this season.
Lars Volden is a 19-year-old whose emergence with Finland’s Espoo Blues got him picked in the sixth round of the NHL draft (181st overall) by the Boston Bruins. He’ll serve as the backup. Meanwhile, 35-year-old Pal Grotnes, who was a fixture between the national team’s pipes from 2005 to 2010, is the third goalie now.
Players from the Swedish Elitserien form the backbone of Norway’s defence. Expect captain Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (Färjestads) to play a lot of hard minutes. The former Columbus Blue Jacket and Philadelphia must beware, however, of taking untimely penalties with his aggressive style of play. Meanwhile, watch for ex-Colorado Avalanche D-man Jonas Holos (Växjö Lakers) and veteran Mats Trygg (HV71) to contribute in all situations as well.
If Norway is to crack the top four in the Stockholm group, it’ll need some timely scoring. Who’s going to pull the trigger?
Hard-charging forward Patrick Thoresen (SKA St. Petersburg), a KHL star since 2009, returns to the World Championship lineup after a one-year absence, and his goal-scoring and playmaking abilities will be relied on. Per-Age Skroder, a 34-year-old right wing who’s twice potted 30 goals with MoDo of the Swedish Elitserien, is another go-to guy. The Olimb brothers shone at last year’s tournament – Mathis had a team-leading nine points, while Ken chipped in four – and they’ll need to provide that kind of production again.
Roy Johansen has been behind the Norwegian bench in World Championship competition since the dawn of time (also known as 2002). A three-time Olympian as a player (1984, 1988, 1994), the 52-year-old product of the Vålerenga system has proven remarkably successful at motivating his troops and keeping them in the top division for the last six years. As usual, his assistant is Knut Stubdahl.
With the new format this year, one early surprise victory isn’t necessarily enough to keep an underdog team in contention. The Norwegians need to deliver a consistent effort if they’re going to live the top-eight lifestyle again. They must also stay out of the penalty box: last year, they surrendered nine goals while shorthanded, more than any other team. If they can do that, they just might be able to maintain a top-nine placement in the World Ranking and start booking hotel rooms in Sochi.