Each team’s 3-2 quarter-final victory oddly mirrored the other's. The Swedes got past underdog Latvia and the U.S. edged the Czechs, reversing the storyline from the PyeongChang Olympics (where the Czechs won the quarter-final 3-2 in a shootout).
Both victors took five minor penalties to their opponents’ one, and will have to address that in the semi-finals. Special teams could be key, as the Americans bring the tournament’s best power play (40 percent) with Sweden right behind (38.4 percent).
“Sweden is a team with a lot of firepower,” said U.S. forward Anders Lee. “They’ve been playing well all tournament, so we’ll rest up here and get ready for them.”
The Americans are no slouches themselves in the high-end skill department. Paced by captain and tournament scoring leader Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks 8+11=19), they’ve also gotten major contributions from Cam Atkinson (Columbus Blue Jackets, 7+4=11), Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings, 3-5-8), and Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames, 1+8=9).
A solid blue line got turbo-charged with the arrival of Charlie McAvoy, who has put up big numbers (3+5=8) in just four games and is averaging a team-high 20:35 a night. Coach Jeff Blashill’s group may be the most fun to watch at this year’s tournament.
In the quarter-final, Sweden got sucked into playing Latvia’s game. It was a strange spectacle to see the defending champions limited to a 4-3 edge in shots on goal in the first period and then outshot 17-15 in the second period. Only in the third period did the Swedes finally take command of the proceedings.
Coach Rikard Gronborg has benefited from an outstanding NHL turnout. It starts with the top line of Rickard Rakell (Anaheim Ducks, 6+7=13), Mika Zibanejad (New York Rangers, 5+4=9), and Mattias Janmark (Dallas Stars, 3+6=9) and their blend of creativity and grit.
“It’s a fantastic line,” said Lias Andersson. “And now we’ve got a little bit more depth with Viktor Arvidsson and Filip Forsberg coming in from Nashville too. So we can get two, three, or four dangerous lines. It’s very good for us that the Zibanejad line keeps going and stays hot.”
For the second year in a row, the Swedes also boast the tournament’s most stacked blue line, including John Klingberg (Dallas Stars), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Arizona Coyotes), Hampus Lindholm (Anaheim Ducks), and Mattias Ekholm (Nashville Predators).
After Tre Kronor rode late additions such as superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers) and Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Capitals) to gold last year, it prompts the question: just why are so many Swedish NHLers willing to answer the World Championship call?
“I think we trigger each other,” said Klingberg. “One guy is going and a couple more guys are going. And then obviously you know we have a good chance to win the gold. Then more guys want to come and enjoy the tournament and go for gold as well.”
The Swedish fan support hasn't hurt either. It’s been a sea of yellow-and-blue jerseys at Copenhagen’s Royal Arena as total tournament attendance soars close to 500,000.
“It’s been great,” said Worlds rookie Adrian Kempe, who had two assists in the win over Latvia. “I wasn’t expecting that many fans coming here before I came here. But it feels really close to Sweden. You feel like you’re almost over there.”
Goaltending feels like the interesting wild card in this semi-final scenario. While Sweden’s Anders Nilsson has put up better numbers than U.S. starter Keith Kinkaid, the American, who plays for the New Jersey Devils, may be more capable of stealing a game – even if he did get lit up by the Finns in the 6-2 group-closing loss.
All-time, the Swedes have the head-to-head advantage at the Worlds with 37 wins, five ties, and 11 losses. When the two teams met in the group stage last year in Cologne, Germany, the Americans won 4-3 with a pair of goals from Gaudreau. It’s been nine years since the last U.S.-Sweden medal round game. Sweden defeated the Americans 4-2 for bronze on 10 May, 2009 in Berne, Switzerland.
This semi-final could go either way, but with Sweden’s history and experience, it’s hard not to give a slight edge to the undefeated Tre Kronor. Still, you can’t count out a young, hungry American squad looking to pay tribute to the memory of late USA Hockey executive Jim Johannson. The U.S. hasn't won the Worlds since 1933, but has come on strong recently with bronze medals in 2013 and 2015.
“I think it’ll be like an NHL game,” said Klingberg. “Obviously the players know each other really good. So I don’t think there’ll be any surprises.”