Sweden tops Group A
by Andy Potts|15 MAY 2018
The Swedish players celebrate a goal in their win over Russia to take first place in Group A.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Sweden edged past Russia in a Titanic clash to secure top spot in Group A and maintain its record as the only undefeated team in this year's World Championship. Tre Kronor recovered from Kirill Kaprizov's early goal to turn the game around in the second period on markers from Mika Zibanejad and Rickard Rakell before Mattias Ekholm's empty-netter secured a 3-1 win. Goalie Anders Nilsson had 30 saves and one assist to secure Sweden's first victory over the Russians in IIHF competition since 2004.
This end-of-group game was never going to be a phoney war, even if Sweden and Russia were assured of their quarter-final spots. There was too much at stake for both teams. For the winner, first place in the group and a quarter-final against Latvia; for the loser, second place and a test against Canada in the last eight. With due respect to the Baltic nation, Sweden's win here could have a lasting impact on the gold medal prospects for the defending champion and its Russian rival by the end of the week.

To add some spice, there was also the small matter of the reigning World Champion taking on the reigning Olympic champion (or, at least, the closest sporting relative to the Olympic Athletes from Russia who won gold in PyeongChang).

It took a mere 30 seconds to prove that this was going to be lively. Rakell slammed Ilya Mikheyev into the boards, earning the first of many minor penalties for the Swedes and sparking an early skirmish as CSKA Moscow duo Sergei Andronov and Bogdan Kiselevich came to share their opinion of Rakell’s hit. Russia’s players were infuriated once again 90 seconds later when Adam Larsson’s stick found Artyom Anisimov’s throat during a grapple on the slot. Larsson took a double minor, Russia could not convert the 5-on-3 advantage but went in front moments after Rakell returned to the ice.

The goal was further evidence of how Nikita Gusev has reinvigorated the Russian offence. Datsyuk picked him out behind the net, and the SKA forward slipped a pass through John Klingberg and on to the stick of Kaprizov. The youngster potted his sixth goal of the championship and Russia still had two minutes of power play to come.

Penalty trouble was something of a theme for the Swedes, especially early in the game, as Gustav Nyquist noted. "I thought today we spent too much time in the box," he said. "I thought we were the better team 5-on-5 for sure. So I think that’s something we’ve got to take away, that we’re a pretty good team when we’re five guys on the ice, but it’s tough to kill that many penalties."

Russia's extended power play chance did not yield another goal and in the fifth minute Sweden finally had a chance to play at equal strength again. And gradually, the Tre Kronor began to create opportunities of its own. Rakell almost got to a loose puck in front of Vasili Koshechkin; Vladislav Gavrikov held off the Swedish forward amid another bout of pushing and shoving. Then Mikael Backlund set up Gustav Nyquist for a shot that Koshechkin had to block with his head, resembling a soccer defender more than a hockey goaltender.

Sweden’s first power play of the game came late in the opening frame and almost saw Filip Forsberg tie the scores with a scorching shot from the right circle that dinged off the outside of Koshechkin’s far post and flashed to safety.
Russia vs. Sweden
RUS SWE 15 MAY 2018
The men in yellow were vulnerable to needless penalties and when Viktor Arvidsson was called for slashing late in the period, Russia almost doubled its lead. Gusev’s cross-ice pass found Datsyuk, who fired the puck towards Kaprizov at the far post. This time, though, the goalscorer was out of luck: his attempted redirect flashed just wide of Nilsson's net.

Arvidsson might have tied the scores early in the second when he emerged from the box to jump on the puck in centre ice and deliver a backhand shot that Koshechkin padded away. Chances came and went at both ends before Sweden again ran into penalty trouble. The largely pro-Sweden crowd vented its frustrations on the referee but their players also needed to rein in some of the adrenaline that was sloshing around out there.

However, the Swedish PK held firm as Arvidsson and Adrian Kempe were sent to cool their heels and the Tre Kronor tied it up on a power play goal midway through the action. It took just nine seconds from winning the face-off to hitting the net, with Rakell putting up the screen as Zibanejad squeezed a shot through Koshechkin’s defences.

For Russia's Andronov, the game was entering a crucial - and unsuccessful - phase. "Things went wrong for us in the latter part of the second period," he said. "Against a team like that you need to make the right decisions. They have so much skill, they will punish any lapse.

"There where times when we needed to simplify things, especially when we were getting tired. That’s something we need to take from the game, something we can learn from for the future."

The noise in the arena went up another notch on 36:04 when Rakell put Sweden in front. This was Sweden’s first line at its best, with Janmark doing the ugly stuff to keep the puck in the zone, Zibanejad gliding past Nikita Nesterov to get behind the net and Rakell producing a clinical finish from a tight angle to evade the approaching Nikita Zaitsev and wire a shot inside the post.

Rakell was also concerned at the team's discipline issues, but enjoyed much of the hockey they played. "I thought some of the calls were pretty soft but we have to be more careful with taking the stick penalties," the forward said. "Other than that I thought we played hard, we wanted to come out hard, we felt we did."

Forsberg might have added a third after holding off Bereglazov and scooping in a one-handed shot that a startled Koshechkin pushed away with his stick. The puck looped crazily into the air but dropped safely for Russia. Then the Red Machine had one last chance, pulling Koshechkin for an attacking face-off with two seconds left in the frame but failing to win control of the puck quickly enough to use its additional skater.

The pace remained breathless at the start of the third period, with Russia desperately looking for a way back into the game and Sweden eager to preserve its advantage. It wasn’t long before the men in red got another power play chance – Mikael Wikstrand slashing at Yevgeni Dadonov – and looked to stretch the Swedes.

However, the biggest save came at the other end: Backlund forced a turnover in centre ice to set away a two-on-one break. The Swedish captain went himself and Koshechkin needed to get a big pad behind it to steer the rebound away from Janmark.

Back to equal strength and Nilsson distinguished himself for Sweden, coming up big to stop Alexander Barabanov after the Russian stick-handled his way past Klingberg to the net. Soon after, Andronov was an inch away from poking a Gusev pass beyond Nilsson, and ended up taking a blow to the face for his pains. Then, after claiming an assist on Ekholm's empty net goal, the former Ak Bars Kazan goalie made one last, sprawling save to deny Russia a second goal in the dying seconds.

The Swedish goalie is thoroughly enjoying himself in Denmark so far. "We have a very good team. It’s fun to play behind them," he said. "For me personally, there's always room for improvement. No matter whether you have a shutout or not, there’s always something you can do better in games. As a goalie, you have to step up the closer you get to the end of the tournament. It’s going to be tougher and tougher games."
Russia vs. Sweden