Slovakia lost to Finland, 2-0, in the semi-finals, while the Swedes followed with a 2-1 shootout loss to ROC. Both teams, of course, have to shake off the disappointment of losing and focus on what matters most right now—there is an Olympic medal in play.
The teams have played three times at the Olympics, and despite Sweden having an significant edge in World Championship play it is the Slovaks who have the superior record under the five rings. They beat Tre Kronor, 4-3, in the quarter-finals in Vancouver, and won four years previous in the preliminary round, 3-0. Their first meeting, back in 1994, was a 4-4 tie.
In World Championship play the Swedes have won the last five meetings, including a 7-4 decision at the 2007 quarter-finals and a 4-1 win in the 2003 semi-finals. But if you’re a Slovakia fan, you’ll well remember the semi-finals game in 2002 in Sweden, when Ziggy Palffy scored the shootout winner to eliminate the hosts and carry Slovakia to their first, and still only, WM gold.
Sweden started off strong, winning their first two games, and then suffered a bad 4-3 loss to Finland after holding a 3-0 lead in the third period. Nevertheless, they earned a bye directly to the quarters and shut out Canada, 2-0. Slovakia was the opposite. They started with two losses before winning their final preliminary-round game, and then beat Germany, 4-0, in the qualifying round. It seemed that might be as far as they’d get, but in the quarters they shocked the U.S., 3-2, to get to the semis. The teams met a week ago, Sweden winning, 4-1.
Who to watch—Sweden
There is a huge disparity in the Swedish offence. The team has had trouble scoring, finding the back of the net only 13 times in five games. And nine of those goals have come off the stick of just two players—Lucas Wallmark (five) and Anton Lander (four). In short, this year’s edition of Tre Kronor lacks the usual depth and balance that make them a perennial medal contender. Henrik Tommernes, who had three great chances to score in the OT against ROC, leads the team in assists with five.
Who to watch—Slovakia
The Slovaks have almost the same problem. They have scored only 14 goals, and five of those come from 17-year-old Juraj Slafkovsky. He has been sensational in Beijing, but his elder and more experience teammates need to step up and help him with the scoring. Peter Ceresnak has four assists, and defender Martin Marincin has been a rock on the blue line, averaging more than 22 minutes a game.
Patrik Rybar is sure to get the start for Slovakia. He has been sensational all tournament, allowing only five goals in as many games while posting a crazy .957 save percentage. Sweden’s coach Johan Garpenlov has been more democratic in his goalie assignments, playing Lars Johansson (semi-finals loser) three times and Magnus Hellberg twice. Johansson has been better, though, and all things being equal should get the nod.
Sometimes numbers don’t lie, and power play stats are more than a little revealing. Sweden has five goals with the extra man, and is scoring at a decent rate of about 24 per cent. Slovakia, on the other hand, has zero power-play goals. None. Zippo. It’s hard to win games when you can’t score with the extra man. This also means Sweden can play a more aggressive game, knowing that taking an extra penalty of two likely won’t be a problem.
Both teams have had decent penalty killing, Slovakia surrendering three goals while down a skater and Sweden four. The Slovaks have also taken the most minor penalties in the tournament (23), although they are the only team to have played six games (because they were the only team to survive the qualifying and quarter-finals rounds). In short, Sweden will happily rely on special teams as a means to victory while Slovakia will do everything it can to have the game be decided by five-on-five play.
Emotions will be the toughest and more important element to winning. It’s a game no one wants to play, but it’s also a game which earns you an Olympic medal if you can focus on the now and forget about the past. Slovakia is certainly the favourite in this context. They lost the bronze game to Finland in 2010 and have never won an Olympic medal of any colour. Sweden, however, has many medals in its trophy room, so to win or lose the game won’t mean as much. All the same, these are not the Swedes who typically get Olympic invitations, so they will also relish the chance to make some history of their own. This is a game that matters, and expect both teams to play to win.