The Swedish men's hockey team is considered to be a top contender for gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but it took everything the Swedes could muster on Friday to escape Bolshoy Ice Dome with a 1-0 victory over upstart Switzerland.
Sweden and Switzerland were evenly matched throughout the contest, but a goal in the latter half of the third period by Swedish legend Daniel Alfredsson was enough to give Sweden the win and a stranglehold on Group C.
Switzerland was expected to be somewhat overmatched against Sweden, especially after needing a goal in the last 10 seconds of regulation to beat lowly Latvia in its opener. The Swiss came out flying on Friday, though, and they were clearly the more engaged and energetic team in the opening period.
Despite that, Sweden was able to keep the game scoreless. That was almost exclusively the doing of all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The New York Rangers star was up to the task early, and he made what was arguably the save of the tournament by turning away what looked to be a sure goal for Switzerland, according to Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo! Sports:
Even with a dearth of NHL talent on its roster, Switzerland gave Sweden plenty of trouble. The Swiss synergy was obvious, and it likely had to do with the fact that most of the players are used to playing alongside each other in international competition as well as in the Swiss National League A.
Switzerland outshot Sweden by a 13-5 margin in the first period, so while Sweden had to be upset with its level of play to start the game, it also had to be encouraged by the fact that things were still knotted up on the scoreboard.
The Swiss made a surprising decision by starting Reto Berra of the Calgary Flames in goal rather than Anaheim Ducks netminder Jonas Hiller. The latter recorded an impressive shutout against Latvia to begin the tournament, and most probably figured Swiss head coach Sean Simpson would ride his workhorse.
Starting Berra didn't make an impact in the first due to Sweden's lack of quality scoring chances, but he would prove to be an asset for Switzerland in the second period.
After Switzerland's dominance in the opening 20 minutes, the script was flipped during the middle frame. It was Sweden with a significant shots-on-goal advantage in the second with 17 to Switzerland's seven.
Sweden's attack was bolstered by two power plays, but Berra's play equaled and, perhaps even surpassed, what Lundqvist did in the first period. Berra was calm even with the likes of Erik Karlsson and Alfredsson firing away from the point with the man advantage, and he was able to keep things scoreless through two, per Larry Lage of The Associated Press:
An interference penalty on Swedish defenseman Jonathan Ericsson early in the closing frame put Switzerland on the power play, and the Swiss very nearly made Sweden pay. A Swiss shot from the point was deflected by forward Kevin Romy, but Lundqvist made yet another spectacular stop, according to Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo! Sports:
The pace of the game was somewhat disjointed throughout the third period, which suggested that overtime might be imminent, but all it takes is one mistake to change a game.
Berra was fantastic for much of the contest, but he blinked first during the goaltending showdown with Lundqvist. Berra had trouble handling a Karlsson shot, leaving a rebound in the crease. Alfredsson drove to the net and hacked the puck across the line to give Sweden a 1-0 lead.
With that goal, the 41-year-old Alfredsson reached triple digits in career international points for Sweden, per Matias Strozyk of EliteProspects.com:
Switzerland continued to press on after that goal and generated a couple of quality opportunities in the closing minutes, but it couldn't figure out a way to solve Lundqvist, who certainly earned his shutout. With that triumph, Sweden put itself in ideal position to win Group C and earn a bye into the quarterfinals with the group finale against Latvia looming, according to Corey Masisak of NHL.com:
While the Swedes entered Friday's game as fairly substantial favorites, they were dealing with plenty of adversity. According to Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, Swedish captain Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings was ruled out for the remainder of the Olympics with a back injury:
Not only is it terrible news for Sweden since Zetterberg is one of its most gifted forwards, but the Red Wings could feel the effects as well based on the severity of the injury, per Dan Rosen of NHL.com:
Naturally, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland seems fairly concerned regarding Zetterberg's status moving forward, according to Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press.
He has to see a doctor, but he will not be ready by the time we come out of the Olympic break. Beyond that, I have no real time frame ... I don't know if he will need surgery. He needs to see a doctor. He is going to wait until he feels better, then fly home early next week. There is an NHL charter going back to the States on Thursday, he may be on that. It is obviously a huge disappointment for him.
Zetterberg's exit from the tournament was the latest stroke of bad luck for Tre Kronor. Red Wings forward Johan Franzen and Vancouver Canucks forward Henrik Sedin were ruled out ahead of the event, so while Sweden's depth is being tested, it has an opportunity to truly show its mettle on the international stage, according to Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com:
Even though Switzerland played against a Swedish team compromised by injury, the Swiss fans have to be encouraged by their team's performance. While Switzerland has scored just one goal through two games, it has allowed just one goal as well.
Alfredsson's marker in the third period broke a shutout streak that lasted more than five-and-a-half periods for the Swiss, per Tim Wharnsby of CBC:
With Hiller expected to be the man in goal moving forward, as well as an NHL-caliber defense including Mark Streit, Roman Josi, Raphael Diaz and Yannick Weber, the Swiss are a team that none of the top contenders wants to play against.
Switzerland has a way of squeezing the life out of games with its fantastic team defense, and it is capable of scoring on the counterattack, which makes it a dark-horse medal contender.
Although the Swiss likely will have to play in the qualification round, they have an outside shot at a top-four seed coming out of the group stage depending upon tiebreakers, but they will have to beat the Czech Republic in their group finale, which is a realistic goal.
|Men's Hockey Group C Standings|
As for Sweden, a win over Latvia should be routine, so the Swedes can afford to lick their wounds a bit and prepare for the knockout stage. There is no taking Sweden's 2-0 record away, but it hasn't exactly lived up to pre-tournament expectations.
Making up for the loss of so many excellent players isn't easy, and there is no question that other contenders may view Sweden as a team that is ripe for the picking.
The Swedes still have medal-winning potential, but the road won't be as easy as many initially thought.
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