QUEBEC CITY — Belarus came back to haunt Team Sweden. They pushed the Swedes against the wall, and made them work for the points in the first Group A matchup of the tournament. Unlike in Salt Lake City in 2002, the Swedes managed to squeeze a 6-5 win and the ghosts of hockey losses past were back in the closet.
Even if Team Sweden only has one player, team captain Kenny Jonsson, from the Salt Lake City Olympic team here (while starting goalie Mikael Tellqcist was the backup in 2002), the memory of the game still comes up when the two countries meet.
"You mean like in the Olympics? No, it was just a different kind of game with a lot of open space," said Robert Nilsson, laughing, after the game.
This generation of Swedes seemed determined to not create their own Belarus story. Patric Hornqvist showed the way in the first shift by nailing Belarus defenceman Vladimir Denisov into the boards with a hard body check. Then, after four minutes, Nils Ekman got the puck behind the Belarus net, held onto it, held onto it, and sent a pass to Magnus Johansson on the blueline. Johansson took a slapsot and beat Vitali Koval.
When Rickard Wallin’s stick hit a Belarus defenceman, and he was got 2+2 minutes for high sticking, Belarus got its chance to take over the game. Sweden managed to kill the penalties and went back on attack. World Championship rookie Robert Nilsson got the puck on the Belarus blueline, crossed it and passed the puck to Nicklas Backstrom who beat Koval for the second time.
"We had our chance, but this wasn't my best game," said a disappointed Belarus goalie Vitali Koval after the game.
But, the game was far from over. Belarus defenceman Viktor Kostyuchenok, who logged over 22 minutes in the game, snapped a wrist shot past Mikael Tellqvist with a 1:30 remaining in the first period.
In the second period, it was Belarus who took the command. First 2-2 by Sergei Zadelenov, then 3-2 by Alexei Ugarov. Every time the Swedes tied the game, Belarus scored one more to go ahead. First Hornqvist 3-3, then Alexander Zhurik 4-3. Nilsson tied the game in the second period, but Belarus took the lead at the beginning of the third again.
The Swedes chased the puck, they chased Belarus players, they chased the tying goal, and were desperate to tie the game so when Hornqvist got his second of the night, the relief and joy was just as obvious as it had been on Konstantin Koltsov’s face when he danced after the 5-4 goal.
With 9:26 remaining, it was Rickard Wallin’s turn to dance and pump his fist, after he deflected Nils Ekman’s shot between Koval’s pads to give Sweden the 6-5 lead – and three points.
"It was a tough game, Belarus is not easy to meet," said Nicklas Backstrom who played over 20 minutes, most of the Swedish forwards, because the team played with only three centers.
"That worked fine, it was just important to keep the shifts short," he said.
Coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson was happy with the result, but was already looking ahead.
"Belarus is a good and skilled team that skates well. Obviously, the six goals we scored was a good thing, but the five that they scored was too much. We have a lot of small things to work on," he said.
Belarus coach Curt Fraser gave credit to the Swedes.
"I liked the way we played, but Sweden is a strong team, and even if we competed hard, it wasn't enough. You should win if you score give goals, but unfortunately, it wasn't enough today," he said.
The Swedish team is widely considered to be weaker than in the past tournaments, but that's not something the players or the coaches are thinking about.
"Like our captain said, last year we only had one player in ‘The Show.’ Two years ago, we had like five. Sweden has always played like a team. We have some good players who play in Russia or the Swedish Elite League. We’re not worried at all," Robert Nilsson said.
No worries, no legends this time. But one colourful hockey game.