BUFFALO – In the past 11 World Junior Championships, including this one in Buffalo, Team Sweden has gone 44-0 in the preliminary round of the tournament and outscored its opponents by a total of 256-78. And it has one – yes, just one – gold medal to show for their efforts. That happened six years ago and it represented only the second gold medal the Swedes have ever won in this event.
That’s dismal by any standard. What’s almost as bad is the Swedes haven’t even medalled in the past three tournaments. And they won’t in this one unless they start playing with a little more desperation in their game.
A longtime Swedish hockey observer has a theory on all of this. Did you watch the Swedes in the World Cup back in 2016? They came into the tournament overflowing with offensive talent, yet lost in the semifinal to a far less talented Team Europe and seemed content to sit back and patiently wait for breaks before taking advantage of their creativity. This, my Swedish hockey friend says, goes back to the 1950s when the Swedes felt they had to play that way to have any chance at all against the super-talented Soviets. And a generation later, they’re producing some of the most wonderful individual talents in the world, but continue to underwhelm and underperform on the world stage.
In short, their talent level has changed, but their approach to the game too often hasn’t. And if they play the way they did in the quarterfinal against Slovakia in the semifinal against USA, they’re going to get killed. They most certainly have the players to hang with the defending champions and have a formidable back-end with all-world draft-eligible defender Rasmus Dahlin, who looks like a mash-up of Chris Pronger (without the edge), Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. It would be a shame to see it all go for naught because the Swedes don’t have enough oomph in their game.
But Tomas Monten, who is in his second year as Sweden’s coach after guiding his team to a loss in the bronze medal game last year, said it seems the Swedes have historically struggled to carry the weight of lofty expectations. Of the 10 past semifinals, the Swedes have come out on the losing end of five of them.
“I think this time, it’s different,” Monten said. “I can only talk from last year, but I think we had the feeling that we were like a top-two team and we maybe had the pressure in the semifinal. I think this group, and this year, is different. I think we can strike from behind and focus on being on the semifinal.”
Of course the players on this team do not and should not have to carry the burden of past failures in which they had no part. But that’s a funny thing about this tournament. Canadian players, for example, are faced with either living up to the accomplishments of a previous team or expected to make up for ones that haven’t won gold medals in the past. They definitely feel it.
“That’s not my feeling,” Monten said. “This year, coming in here, I think a lot of people had maybe four other teams before us. And I think that’s an advantage for us now getting into the semifinals.”
It might also help that the Swedes got a pretty serious wakeup call in the quarterfinal against a big, aggressive Slovakian team that stayed in the game and continued to put them in duress. Perhaps that will harden the Swedes for their game against the Americans. Perhaps it will help them find an extra gear and make them realize that they’re not going to be able to win this tournament on talent alone.
“I think we need another level or two coming up in the next games,” said Swedish winger Alex Nylander, who has a goal and six points in five games. “We’ll have to be a lot better. We have to step it up and play like playoff hockey.”
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