But it was a battle to the last against a Chinese team looking to secure its own place in the last eight today. Two quick goals in the second period turned this game around for Sweden, giving it a 2-1 lead that it held until the end. But in the final seconds goalie Emma Soderberg was clinging on by her fingertips as the host nation went six-on-five and unleased a storm in front of her net.
"It feels really good to finally have a win in this tournament," said Soderberg. "It hasn’t been an easy start for us, so this win was huge."
For China it was a straightforward equation before the game. If the host nation got any kind of win it advanced to the quarter final. However, Sweden also needed victory in regulation to stay in the competition before that final group game against the Danes.
In previous games, China’s workrate had impressed everyone. The Dragons put up a creditable performance in its opening game against Czechia before outlasting Denmark to win with a last-minute goal and downing Japan in a shoot-out. Sweden, by contrast, looked a shadow of the team that had been so dominant in previous tournaments. Timid in its play and slow to assert itself on games, the Damkronorna suffered 1-3 losses to Japan and Czechia and faced a storm of criticism back home.
The opening period saw both teams continue their recent form. China made the early running, with chances for Jiaxin Lin (Taylor Lum) and Xifang Zhang (Anna Segedi) while the Swedes struggled to keep the puck out of their zone. That pressure paid off in the sixth minute when Mina Waxin was caught in possession trying to bring the puck over the blue line. Jiaxin Lin forced the turnover and 20-year-old Mulan Kang (Kassy Betinol) pounced, walking to the net and outwitting Soderberg in a face-to-face duel.
Although the crowd in the Wukesong Arena is small due to pandemic restrictions, there was nothing diminutive about the roar that greeted that opener. Throughout the first period there was plenty of noise from the partisan spectators.
"I thought we came out and got everything we wanted in the first period. Our energy was good, our execution was good, we got the power play," said China's head coach Brian Idalski. "Then the power play expired and I thought we got a little loose there surrounding the penalty shot and the power play and they were able to get two quick goals and that ends up being the difference. I thought our energy went down after that, they hemmed us in, we started turning pucks over."
At that stage, China looked comfortable, but Sweden gradually got back into the game. And early in the second period, two quick goals turned the game – and the potential quarter-final line-up – on its head. It all started with a Chinese power play, which has been a weakness in the host’s play to date. Sweden did a good job of keeping the puck away from Soderberg’s net and did even better when Sara Hjalmarsson fashioned a breakaway that was illegally halted by Zhixin Liu. Felizia Wikner-Zienkiewicz took the subsequent penalty shot and flashed down the ice to beat Jiaying Zhou in the Chinese net. Yesterday, Zhou stopped all five Japanese efforts in the post-game shoot-out but she had no answer here.
"I didn’t think that much," said goalscorer Wikner-Zienkiewicz. "They told me just before I went to just go and do my thing and I did. It was nice. We got some confidence and turned our game around."
Just 90 seconds later, Sweden was in front. Josefin Bouveng collected the puck wide on the right and circled into a central position before shooting through traffic to beat Zhou. The 20-year-old, who plays for table-topping Brynas Gavle in her homeland, scored twice in qualifying last year and this goal transformed the qualification picture here in Beijing.
Now, Sweden’s fate was in its own hands. Hold onto the lead here and defeat Denmark in its next game, and the Swedes would progress. China, though, was in jeopardy, with a regulation loss today meaning only a Danish win in overtime would secure a quarter-final berth. But the momentum shift saw the Dragons struggle to generate much fire; Sweden outshot the host 15-6 in the second period and it wasn’t until late in the session that Soderberg was seriously tested again.
By now, the building was much quieter, with the bulk of the noise coming direct from the ice. Sweden was steadily putting right much of what had gone wrong earlier in the tournament and China was beginning to demand more and more ice time from its top line. The Swedes responded by upping their own workrate and winning more one-on-one battles. The face-off stats were telling: in the second period, China won 73% of the draws, in the third, Sweden won 80% as Ulf Lundberg's team adopted a "what we have, we hold" strategy to close out the game.
Before this game, Lundberg accepted responsibility for his team's disappointing results. Now, the feeling on the team is changing. "It’s a big relief, of course," he said. "I talked about the grit before the game and I think our players really showed it today, especially at the end of this game. For sure we met a good team, China came at us hard, but I’m proud of how we made it to the end. This is exactly what we needed."
There were still nerve-jangling moments for Soderberg; a dangerous tip from Rui Zhu forcing perhaps her sharpest save before China pulled its goalie to set up a frantic finish. In the final two minutes, playing six-on-five, Brian Idalski’s Dragons threatened a devastating surge. The Swedish goalie had to be alert to a flurry of shots, with Li Me’s (Hannah Miller) thunderous point shot proving a powerful weapon.
"I was just trying to not let the puck past me," Soderberg said. "They were pushing hard those last minutes, throwing everything on the net, crashing the net for rebounds but I think our players were sacrificing their bodies to stop the puck from coming through. It feels really good that we were able to survive that."
And fortune favoured Sweden as well: twice Ni Lin (Rachel Llanes) saw the puck squirm away from her stick when she seemed poised to bury a rebound. Finally, the hooter sparked Swedish celebrations – and ushered in an anxious wait for China.