With a 6-2 dispatching of Slovakia, Sweden completed its unbeaten run in Group A on New Year's Eve. The Swedes' record-setting preliminary round winning streak now sits at 52 games, and will remain a topic of conversation at the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta.
The Swedes finish first in the group and the Slovaks fourth.
Regarding the key to victory in the quarter-finals, Swedish goalie Hugo Alnefelt said: "I think we just need to stay focused through the whole game, taking care of our opportunities and being really hard in front of me in our own zone, not letting anyone get in the slot too easily."
The teams’ quarter-final opponents depend on the Canada-Czech Republic game in Group B. If Canada wins in regulation time, then Sweden will face the Czechs and Slovakia will take on Canada. If the Czechs win in regulation time, then Sweden will face Canada and Slovakia will take on the Americans.
The big question for coach Tomas Monten's boys now may be whether they've been sufficiently battle-hardened in group play to succeed in the medal round. Trying to solve Finnish goalie Justus Annunen in their 3-2 overtime win on Day One was the biggest test.
At least the Swedes haven't been hit by the flu the way they were in Victoria, where they fell 2-0 to the Swiss in the 2019 quarter-finals.
"We don't want that to happen again," said captain Adam Ginning. "We will be as prepared as we can for that game."
Alexander Holtz led the way with two goals for Sweden, and Albin Eriksson, Philip Broberg, Oscar Back, and Samuel Fagemo also scored. Victor Soderstrom and Jonatan Berggren had two assists apiece. Alnefelt got his third World Junior win.
"I think we're confident," said Soderstrom. "We have a good group here. If we play well, we know we need to be a little bit lucky too, but we can go all the way, absolutely."
Kristian Kovacik and Robert Dzugan tallied for Slovakia.
Shots on goal favoured Sweden 42-18. Sweden took a three-goal first-period lead before Slovakia got its first shot on goal near the 14-minute mark.
The Slovaks weren’t expected to beat Sweden, but to close out Group A with this kind of effort in front of a pro-Slovak crowd of 4,154 was disappointing, even if they were destined to finish in fourth place regardless.
"We didn't expect results like this," said Slovakia's Maxim Cajkovic. "We didn't play as we expected or wanted to. But it's over, and we have to focus on the quarter-finals and whoever's going to be our opponent and get ready for them."
For a country that’s often dubbed a “social welfare state,” Sweden was remarkably unwilling to share the puck in the first period. And the crowd favourites simply were not dialed in.
Right after the end of Slovakia’s first penalty, a minor for too many men on the ice, the 17-year-old Holtz floated one past goalie Samuel Hlavaj from the left side boards at 8:59.
Fifteen seconds later, the Swedish forecheck capitalized with ease. Karl Henriksson grabbed the puck and slid to an unmolested Eriksson, who scored on the glove side.
Henriksson and Eriksson got a 2-on-0 shorthanded break just after the midway point of the first, but failed to cash in. The Slovak power play was impotent, despite Sweden's consecutive interference minors, and Broberg got an easy shorthanded goal from the slot at 13:16.
In the second period, Linus Oberg got loose on the right side and walked in to send a rising shot past Hlavaj at 2:42. Slovak coach Robert Petrovicky challenged the play because it was offside, and the goal was wiped out. This, however, was not the proverbial TSN Turning Point.
There was no doubt when Back put the Juniorkronorna up 4-0 at 5:08. Coming in from the right point, captain Adam Ginning skimmed a diagonal pass to Back, who deflected it in at point-blank range on his backhand.
More games of keep-away for the Swedes followed. Slovakia didn't register a shot in the second period until almost 12 minutes in. Alnefelt could have read the works of Astrid Lindgren while he waited.
With a high wrister through traffic, Holtz added his third goal of the tournament on the power play with 3:51 left in the middle frame.
Of Holtz's success, Alnefelt said: "I'm not surprised. He's such a good player and he's been so good at home in the SHL as well. I knew he could do it on this level as well."
In the third period, the Slovaks finally gave their fans something to cheer about. Sustained power play pressure and net-front presence led to Kovacik's goal at 5:17, as the puck fluttered up and over Alnefelt. It was reviewed for goalie interference but ruled good.
The degree to which this worried the Swedes was reflected in the fact that team scoring leaders Fagemo and Nils Hoglander both unsuccessfully attempted to score a "lacrosse goal" on the same shift. Good times.
A (mostly) Slovak penalty parade ensued. Before an extended two-man advantage late in the game, Monten called his timeout. The Swedes didn't click, and Slovakia added one more goal from Dzugan with 1:57 left.
On a last-minute 5-on-3 power play, Fagemo potted his tournament-leading sixth goal to make it 6-2.
Asked about facing a North American team in the quarter-final, Cajkovic said: "Tough! Real tough! Whether it's going to be Canada or the U.S., both of them are the best in the world. So we're just going to have to listen to the coaches about how they want us to play and be patient and follow the system."
Generally speaking, Slovakia struggles to beat Sweden unless a bronze medal is up for grabs. The Slovaks beat Sweden 5-4 in 1999 and 4-2 in 2015 to win bronze. The last Slovak win over Sweden on New Year’s Eve was during a season when Markus Naslund and Marian Hossa finished fourth and fifth respectively in NHL scoring (31 December 2003).