Wallmark's pair lifts Swedes over Latvia
by Lucas Aykroyd|10 FEB 2022
Forward Lucas Wallmark (#23, foreground) celebrates with teammates after scoring his first of two goals in Sweden's opening 3-2 win over Latvia.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
No superstars, no problem. Sweden took a steady, methodical approach to kick off its 2022 Olympic men's hockey tournament with a 3-2 win over Latvia on Thursday at the National Indoor Stadium.

Lucas Wallmark led the way for Tre Kronor with two goals and captain Anton Lander added a single.

"We know we have players who can score goals on this team," said Swedish coach Johan Garpenlov. "We might not have many pure goal-scorers, but we have lots of guys who can score. Today, Lucas scored two goals. Maybe next game it will be some other players."

The Swedish national team's puck possession game is very difficult to beat when they build a lead, and even though the Latvians battled back from a three-goal second period deficit with two power-play goals, that was as close as they got. It wasn't a picture-perfect Swedish effort, but it was good enough.

"As we saw, the Swedes are quality," said Latvian coach Harijs Vitolins. "They play quality games and if you make mistakes, they can quickly score goals, which is why you must be ready every second. That’s how the three goals happened. But it was good that we came back and it gives us confidence for tomorrow."

Renars Krastensbergs and Nikolejs Jelisejevs replied for Latvia. Captain Lauris Darzins chipped in a pair of assists.

"This was only the first battle," Darzins said. "We couldn’t win medals and we couldn’t lose medals today. We’re in it like any other team and I like how our team played today. We came up short, but Sweden is a good team and it was a good challenge for us. We’ve just got to elevate our performance each game."

Sweden outshot Latvia 26-17.

"We wanted to get a good start to the tournament," Lander said. "It was really important to us to get a win. We’ve got some stuff we’ve gotta work on. Especially in the third, I thought we were sitting back too much. "

Under Garpenlov, these workmanlike Swedes are considered long shots to earn their third Olympic gold medal of all-time (1994, 2006). They finished fifth in 1998, 2002, 2010, and 2018. They’re also coming off a ninth-place finish at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Riga, matching their all-time worst result from 1937.

Latvia is back in the Olympics for the first time since 2014. The small Baltic nation is still seeking its first Olympic medal. It peaked in Sochi at eighth place with a tense 2-1 quarter-final loss to Canada. In that game, Kristers Gudlevskis starred with 55 saves, but the 29-year-old goalie, who recently transferred from HC Slovan Bratislava to Brynas IF, sat out the 2022 opener.

Ivars Punnenovs, who had two shutouts when Latvia won its Olympic qualification tournament in Riga in August, got the start from Vitolins.

Swedish goalie Lars Johansson (SKA St. Petersburg) made his IIHF debut at age 34. The current KHL star won an SHL title with Frolunda (2016) and a Gagarin Cup with CSKA Moskva (2019).

Both goalies looked sharp in the early going, but Wallmark opened the scoring on Pontus Holmberg’s Wayne Gretzky-worthy feed from behind the net at 9:42. The versatile 26-year-old forward, in his first season with CSKA Moskva, totalled 23 goals in 187 career NHL games with Carolina, Florida, and Chicago.

Of Wallmark's multiple strengths, Garpenlov noted: "He’s a really good playmaking centre. He can set up other players and he can do it himself too. That’s why he’s on our team and that’s what we need from him."

On a late-period Swedish man advantage, Wallmark’s drive was almost tipped in by Carl Klingberg, stationed in front. The older brother of Dallas Stars defenceman John Klingberg was limited to one game at the 2018 Olympics. After scoring two goals and an assist in the stunning 4-3 opening loss to Denmark, Klingberg was knocked out of the 2021 Worlds with a lower-body injury in Sweden’s second outing against Belarus.

Just 30 seconds into the second period, Punnenovs was victimized after attempting to clear the puck around the boards. He got little defensive support as Klingberg intercepted it and set up Mathias Brome for the initial shot. The goalie sprawled helplessly as Lander slid the rebound home for a 2-0 lead.

Barely a minute later, Wallmark took a double minor for carelessly high-sticking Janis Jaks in the mouth. That gave Latvia a golden opportunity to get on the board on its first power play. However, Johansson was equal to the challenge. Oh his best save during the Latvian man advantage, he reached back with his glove to grab a puck tipped by Ronalds Kenins before it crossed the goal line.

Max Friberg, the Frolunda star who led the golden 2012 Swedish World Junior team with nine goals, provided a mid-game moment of levity when he played the puck off his helmet in the neutral zone.

Wallmark stretched Sweden's lead to 3-0 with a power-play one-timer at 13:39. He didn't get all of it, but the puck floated over Punnenovs and under the bar.

Explaining Latvia's mindset here, Vitolins said: "We just played shift to shift. I said, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose.’ At this moment, 3-0 behind, we continued to play physical, play our game. We said we needed to score the next goal and then we’ll see."

Wallmark also led Sweden in penalties. After he was sent off for hooking, the Latvians finally cashed in on the power play at 16:07. Krastenbergs did the damage with a bar-down snipe from the left faceoff circle that beat Johansson on the glove side.

"We had one exhibition game and our power play wasn’t clicking and our coach was all over us," Darzins said. "I think we responded pretty well today. I think we were 50 per cent on the PP, so we’ll take that any day."

When Sweden was caught with too many men in the ice in the third period, it was Wallmark that Garpenlov dispatched to serve the minor. Jelisejevs deftly converted the rebound from a Darzins drive, lifting it over Johansson's glove to cut the deficit to 3-2 at 6:48.

Late in the game, the Swedes were unable to capitalize with Rodrigo Abols off for checking to the head. But it took precious time off the clock, and Latvia was plumb out of goals, even with Punnenovs pulled for the extra attacker with under two minutes left. Johansson slid across to stop Uvis Balinskis' one-timer blast at the last second and preserve the win.

"Latvia is a good team," Lander said. "One thing they did really well was getting pucks in deep in the third period and coming harder on the forecheck. That’s something we need to do the other way and keep things a little more simple."

Sweden also won its previous two Olympic games versus Latvia, 6-1 in 2006 and 5-3 in 2014.
Sweden vs Latvia - 2022 Olympic Men's Ice Hockey Tournament