Mattias Ekholm is the player on the Swedish team that has logged the most minutes so far.
The defenceman averages 21 minutes and 30 seconds of ice time per game and plays in all situations. Fresh from his first season spent mainly in the National Hockey League, the 23-year-old from the Nashville Predators likes Sweden’s chances going forward.
“I think we have not only improved as a team, but also individually,” he said. “That’s what you always strive for. You can’t win any medals for the first seven games, but it’s still no free ride. You still need to win and develop as you go along.”
“I feel we have done that,” he said of his team’s performances, which started off a little shaky but still got the job done as Sweden won five games in regulation, beat the Czech Republic on penalty shots and lost 3-2 to Canada in overtime.
The last-mentioned game still kind of stings a bit for the 193-centimetre, 93-kilogram defenceman, who has one goal and three assists so far in the tournament.
“I think we should have won against Canada,” Ekholm said. “We played a good game. But even though we didn’t get the result, it proved that we can play with the very best in this tournament.”
As a result of the scheduling of the tournament and the fact that the Finns had to get help from the Swiss on Tuesday versus Latvia to reach the quarter-finals, no team other than the Swedes were able to sit back, and relax the way Sweden could after the completing the round-robin Monday night.
With an intense three-game playoff round coming up, where the gold-medal winner will be the team of the eight remaining that manages to win all three games, the extra rest could be a factor.
“Personally, I think it’s quite nice,” Ekholm said. “I like getting the two days off. It helps getting the legs going again, especially at a time like this when we’ve had quite an intense period with a lot of games.
“For me, it’s only a positive getting two days of rest [from games].”
The plan was for Sweden to take Tuesday off from practice, and get back to the rink on Wednesday, to fine-tune before taking on host nation Belarus, Thursday night.
The interval from games is the longest the team has had since arriving at the tournament, having played seven games in 10 days in the Group A.
“To be honest, I was more worn out after two or three games than I am now,” Ekholm explained. “When you first get in, you’re not accustomed to the bigger ice-surface and when you do get into it and know where to go it helps you waste less energy in the games. I feel like that part of the game has gotten better for every game that we have played.”
In the quarter-finals, Ekholm is a good bet to lead Sweden on defence again, paired mobile Lulea defenseman Johan Fransson on even strength. Ekholm also takes a shift on the penalty kill and mans the blue line on Sweden’s second power play unit.
“I get a lot of confidence from the coaches and I feel very comfortable with my role on the team,” Ekholm explained. “It’s just for me to keep doing what I do best and keep two my two feet on the ground at all times.”
If Sweden has been somewhat offensively challenged at times in the tournament, the defence has worked better, having allowed only 10 goals in seven games.
For special teams, it’s looking good on surface but people who have followed Tre Kronor so far might tell a different story. There’s no doubt that the penalty kill has been great so far, killing of 92.86 % of power plays faced. The power play has sputtered, but numbers got a big boost from the four goals that Sweden scored with the man advantage in the win over Italy.
Is that a case of meeting an opponent that did not challenge the team as well as others, or a case of Sweden improving? The quarter-finals will tell.