The remarkable thing isn’t that Sweden has advanced to the gold-medal game in men’s hockey. After all, the Swedes won the tournament in 2006, the last time the Olympics took place in Europe, and the team is recognized as one of international hockey’s so-called “Big Four.” Most expected Sweden to compete for gold, and thanks to Friday’s win over Finland, it now will.
No, the remarkable thing is that the gold-medal game will be the first time in this tournament that Sweden will face a team plausibly its equal.
With all due respect to a plucky Finnish team that competed fiercely despite its decimation by injury, Sweden had an awfully easy road to the final game of the 2014 Olympic hockey tournament. It was the easiest path any team has taken since the NHL started sending players to the games back in 1998. The question now is whether it is a path that truly prepared the Swedish team for an extremely tough fight for the gold medal.
It started in the group round, where the Swedes’ toughest opponent was a Czech team undermanned owing to bizarre personnel decisions; the United States routed the same team when the two clubs met in the semifinals. After beating the Czech Republic, Sweden had to top Switzerland and Latvia, defensive-minded teams who kept the games tight but had nothing even resembling the talent of the Swedish roster.
A perfect group round—Sweden was the only team in the tournament to win all three of those games in regulation—resulted in a quarterfinal match against Slovenia that was never in doubt and then a date with Finland in the semifinals.
Finland was a stiffer test, but a series of injuries had so devastated the roster that just reaching the game against Sweden was a massive achievement for the team. The damage is perhaps best illustrated by the team’s improvised top line, featuring players far too old (43-year-old Teemu Selanne), far too young (21-year-old Mikael Granlund, just 73 games into his NHL career) and just not that good (Jarkko Immonen, who has evolved into a moderately competent KHL scorer after failing to hold down an NHL job).
This Finnish team never lacked for effort, but it certainly missed the talent of previous incarnations.
No team to ever win gold has faced such a cakewalk. Canada had to fight its way out of the qualification round in 2010. Sweden in 2006 and Canada in 2002 went a combined 4-3-1 in the group round, with both teams losing contests in which they surrendered five goals. The Czech Republic in 1998 perhaps had the most impressive run, knocking out the United States, Canada and Russia in the elimination round.
There’s something to be said for adversity at the Olympics.
For the coaches, the opportunity to see their team tested can reveal valuable weaknesses, but a defeat forces action. Canada’s 5-2 loss to Sweden at the 2002 Olympics, as one example, set off panic in the country, and the coaching staff responded with a host of changes, including dumping Pat Quinn-favoured starter Curtis Joseph for New Jersey Devils No. 1 Martin Brodeur.
Sweden, on the other hand, exited the group round confident—and lost to Belarus in the quarterfinals in what might be the greatest upset in modern Olympic hockey history.
Sweden certainly wasn’t overconfident in 2006. That edition of the team lost 5-0 to Russia and then fell to Slovakia in the group round. At the time, it was tempting to count out a Swedish roster that had come up short in games against strong teams, but Sweden went on to dominate in the quarterfinals and semifinals before beating Finland for gold.
Most strong teams would doubtless be happy to avoid the risk and take the easy road to the gold-medal game, rather than risking elimination in an encounter with another hockey power. In doing so, however, they run the risk that Sweden faces now: the risk that key undetected flaws will be exposed under pressure the team simply did not see until it played for gold.
It is possible that this Swedish team doesn't suffer from any hidden fault lines. But if it does, they will be revealed in the gold-medal game, and the coaches will have precious little time to correct for them.
Statistics courtesy of IIHF.com.