China eyes QF in Sweden showdown
by Andy Potts|07 FEB 2022
Sweden's Emma Nordin and China's Liang Tang wait for a faceoff at the 2009 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship. In this last encounter between the two coutnries Sweden won 6-1.
photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images
It’s do or die in the Women’s tournament. When China faces Sweden on Monday, only victory will keep the Swedes in the competition. By contrast, the host nation can secure its place in the last eight; given the advances in women’s hockey over the last 24 years, that would arguably be a greater achievement than the fourth-place finish in the inaugural Olympic tournament in 1998.

Lundberg laments ‘passive’ Swedes

It’s Sweden’s first international tournament since it was relegated from the World Championship elite division in 2019. With the pandemic putting paid to all lower division action, the Damkronorna’s sole competitive action came in Olympic qualification in Lulea in November. That’s a big comedown from the days when Sweden was rated as Europe’s top women’s team and battled its way to a silver medal at the 2006 Olympics.

And head coach Ulf Lundberg suffered a further blow when four players were forced to withdraw before the Games. Seeing experienced defender Johanna Fallman limp out of Saturday’s loss to Czechia only adds to the team’s problems, while back home the local media has been highly critical of Sweden’s struggles. 

Lundberg, who was appointed to the women’s team last season having previously spent almost a decade with Sweden’s youth men’s teams, is shouldering the burden of his team’s troubles, looking to deflect attention away from his players.

After the defeat against Czechia, he told Swedish journalists: “Of course I take responsibility for the fact we are not better prepared. I’m surprised we are coming out so passively. A lot of it is about experience, but it’s also about being able to let loose and play our game. We need to do that from the start.”

However, he felt that his team improved as the game went on against the Czechs and is confident that they can get a result against China and keep its Olympic campaign alive.

“We have a lot more to give, and I’m already looking forward to the China game,” he added.

Emotions run high for host nation

For China, meanwhile, an overtime loss or better will guarantee a place in the quarter finals. For a nation ranked 20th in the world and a team that arrived here as an unknown quantity, that would be a huge achievement.

And these are emotional times for team captain Yu Baiwei. The 33-year-old defender is back at the Games after a 12-year gap from Vancouver and she can’t quite believe what’s unfolding on home ice.

After the dramatic shoot-out victory over Japan, Yu burst into tears during the post-game interviews. “I am so proud to be in this team, proud that my teammates played so well,” she said. “After the game we hugged each other and I saw somebody crying. Then, I just could not control myself.

“Normally we don’t want to show our sensitive side to others, but I know how hard it is.”

As for Sweden – and beyond – the focus is on extending the Olympic journey as far as possible. “We know that every game in the coming days will be a fierce battle,” Yu added. “We will do our best match by match.
“We just want to make every second count and do our own jobs well. We’re trying not to make mistakes, to help each other and protect our goalie.”

Head coach Brian Idalski, who also takes charge of these players in Russia’s Women’s Hockey League with KRS Vanke Rays, has been doing his homework. “We’ve already been preparing for all the teams in the tournament and watching games from their qualifiers. Sweden wasn’t at the World Championship but I’m familiar with a fair number of their players from U.S. college. Emma Nordin, the flag-bearer, plays for us at KRS.

"And they’ve played two games here already. It’s a short turnaround and we have to focus on what we need to do to be successful against them.”

Meanwhile, China does have an Olympic victory over Sweden to its credit - back in 1998, a 6-1 success in Nagano secured a place in the bronze-medal game against Finland.

The equation

Anything less than victory in regulation means Sweden is out of contention for a top-three finish in group B and a place in the last eight. Even if the Swedes get that result, the Damkronorna need to follow up with a win over Denmark in their final game in the group to overtake China.

For China, it’s simple. Anything better than a loss inside 60 minutes guarantees third place and a place in the quarter finals.