SOCHI, Russia – It may be undefeated, and it may have booked a spot in Sunday’s gold-medal game with today’s 2-1 win over Finland, but the Olympics haven’t been without adversity for the Swedish men’s hockey team.
Already without Henrik Sedin to start the Games, the Swedes lost their captain, Henrik Zetterberg, after their first preliminary match versus the Czechs, a 4-2 victory. A pair of uneven wins, 1-0 over Switzerland and 5-3 over Latvia, furthered the notion that their gold-medal hopes had taken a serious hit.
Despite earning the top seed out of the preliminaries, the Swedes knew they had to get better.
“There’s been some bumps and bruises along the way,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “I thought today (versus Finland) we needed to play our best hockey of the tournament, and I think we did.”
“That’s been a thing for successful Swedish teams,” said forward Daniel Sedin. “We usually start out pretty slow, then get better throughout the tournament.”
Sedin is right about that. In 2006, the Swedes went 3-2 in group play, losing 5-0 to Russia and 3-0 to Slovakia, before winning three straight elimination games and the gold medal.
“I think today we had a great game plan against Finland,” said forward Daniel Alfredsson. “We knew the neutral zone was important. We did a much better job than Russia did against them, with getting through, with getting the puck in, and not allowing them to counterattack too many times.”
Of course, there will be those who say that Sweden has had an easy route to the final, drawing tiny Slovenia in the quarterfinals and the Finns — without star goalie Tuukka Rask (flu), and with their own collection of injured centers — in the semis.
“I don’t know who would say that,” countered Sedin. “Either they don’t understand hockey, or I don’t know. There are no easy games in this tournament. Finland beats Russia. We beat Finland. All tough games.”
That said, Sedin knows that whoever the Swedes get in the gold-medal game – Canada or the United States – it will likely be their biggest challenge of the tournament.
“Either or, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “It’s probably the two best teams playing in the other semifinals, but I think we have a chance if we play like we did today.”
Said Alfredsson of the challenge that awaits: “It will be a different game. We’ve played all European teams so far. Canada is more straightforward, they’re a heavier team than Finland is. The U.S., the same thing. They both play very similarly.”
With their semifinal win, the Swedes are guaranteed at least silver, and that’s better than they managed four years ago in Vancouver, when they were upset by Slovakia in the quarters.
Alfredsson doesn’t want to settle for second though.
“We weren’t one of the favorites to make the finals, but we believed in ourselves, and it’s a great feeling to be here now,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that we regroup, and make sure that we’re not satisfied.”