Sweden retained first place in Group A with a 3-1 win over Slovakia on Friday at Chizhovka Arena. Mikael Backlund got the eventual winner in the first period.
The Swedes, now up to 14 points, will tangle with the second-place Canadians on Sunday and finish off their Group A slate versus Italy on Monday.
"We played really strong in the first period," said Backlund. "We came out with a lot of energy. Then, in the second, there were a lot of penalties but it was still controlled. In the end, it's one of our better games in the tournament so far, even if it wasn't the best."
The loss leaves the Slovaks with long odds of making the quarter-finals. They have just four points, and need to collect as many points as possible in their two remaining games versus Italy on Saturday and Denmark on Tuesday.
"We played so tight because half our team is sick," said Slovak star Ladislav Nagy. "Four players didn’t play. They stayed in the hotel. There’s some virus in the locker room. So I didn’t feel like I had any energy. I have like a sore throat. I don’t know what’s happened. From what, from where? It’s hard to play against Sweden when you have no energy."
Gustav Nyquist and Magnus Nygren had the other two goals for Sweden. Martin Marincin replied for Slovakia.
Looking ahead to facing Canada, Nyquist said: "They have a very young and gifted team, but at the same time they lack a bit of experience. Also, they all come from playing on the small rinks. Hopefully we can exploit that."
Goalie Anders Nilsson got his fifth straight win for the Swedes, who enjoyed a 40-21 edge in shots on goal. The Slovaks started Jan Laco in net, but he was pulled after 20 minutes for backup Jaroslav Janus.
Despite remaining unbeaten, Sweden has had difficulty putting the puck in the net. It has scored just seven goals in its last three games. But Tre Kronor is still feeling good.
"It was a much better effort today," said Nyquist. "We got a much better start than we have done in the previous games, and when we got that third goal, it was huge, of course. After that I feel we controlled the game pretty well. It's hard to say how there can be such a big difference from one day to another. If we knew, we'd fix it right away."
This was an aggressively contested game with scrums aplenty around the goal creases.
The Swedes put pressure on Laco in the first period, keeping his glove hand busy, as they outshot Slovakia 15-6. The two-goal lead they built would have been bigger if it weren’t for the solid play of the 2012 World Championship’s Best Goalie.
Sweden’s power play was ranked ninth (15.79 percent) coming into this game, and that had to improve. It did, in a big way.
With their third man advantage of the first, Tre Kronor grabbed a 1-0 lead at 10:05. Dick Axelsson moved to the top of the right faceoff circle and skimmed a diagonal cross-ice pass to Nyquist at the far side of Laco’s crease, and he put in.
Reway got in tight with a nice pass from Juraj Mikus and knifed a backhander on Nilsson, but the towering netminder wasn’t fazed.
With 1:45 left in the period, Swedish blueliner Niclas Andersen was shaken up when he tried to block a rising slap shot by Juraj Valach and took it off his visor. The trainers helped him off and he went to the dressing room. Andersen was sent for X-rays and would not return.
"These are freak accidents that have happened to players who sacrifice their bodies when they play," said Nyquist. "Taking a puck to the head doesn't happen too often, fortunately. But for us who are left, it's just a matter of going out there and taking on an even bigger responsibility."
Backlund made it 2-0 on the power play with 12 seconds remaining before the buzzer. He worked a sweet give-and-go with Joakim Lindstrom, who took the puck behind the goal line and then fed it back to the Calgary forward, who snapped it past Laco before he could move. It was Backlund’s team-leading fourth goal and Lindstrom’s team-leading seventh point.
The Slovaks came perilously close to getting on the board just before the buzzer, but couldn’t slide it all the way in thanks to Nilsson’s great bulk.
Even though Laco had played well, coach Vladimir Vujtek switched goalies to start the second period. It seemed to provide a temporary wake-up call for his struggling squad.
"They just wanted to give him a little break," said Nagy. "Janus played really well for us."
With the largely pro-Slovak crowd in a frenzy, the Slovaks poured it on in the second period, and finally cut the deficit to 2-1 at 9:12. Defenceman Martin Marincin circled to the center point and unleashed a shot that deflected and dribbled over the goal line inside Nilsson’s left post.
Michel Miklik had a lovely power play chance to tie the score with 2:24 left in the middle frame, as Richard Panik found him all alone to Nilsson’s right with a beautiful, behind-the-back pass through his legs, but the Swedish goalie slid across to take it away.
The Swedes got some insurance just 1:58 into the third period when Linus Klasen fed the right point and Nygren’s blast whizzed home on the glove side.
While the Slovaks never gave up until the end, they were no match tactically for the Swedes, who outshot them 11-4 in the third. Swedish head coach Par Marts exchanged happy fist bumps with his assistant coaches as they moved on to their next challenge.
"I’m happier today," said Marts. "It was a tricky game for us. We want to be in the driver’s seat, and we had the puck a lot. Overall, I thought we were the better team."
Nagy said the Slovaks can't be overconfident against the low-ranked Italians.
"Everybody knows how to play here. Everybody knows how to skate. Look at France. We were up 3-1 and with 10 minutes left, they scored four goals against us. [Italy] plays so hard. We’ve got to be really good defensively. We’ve got to just go for it."