Sweden refused to allow USA to dictate play in Thursday’s semifinal, playing hard and fast en route to a berth in the World Junior Championship final.
BUFFALO – Though the Americans made it interesting in the end, Sweden’s early third period blitz basically salted away the semifinal at the world juniors. Perhaps most importantly for a program that had fallen short at this stage so often lately is that the Swedes matched Team USA’s physical game throughout the 4-2 victory.
“It was very important,” said Washington Capitals pick Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. “You can’t show them respect because they’ll feel that and take advantage. We had to play with no respect and that’s what we did.”
Jonsson-Fjallby is one of several players on the team that excel in a speedy grit game, a cohort that also includes Marcus Davidsson (BUF) and Oskar Steen (BOS). A lot of the Swedes were throwing hits in the semifinal and the killer instinct necessary to win these clutch games was there. Also clutch? Elias Pettersson. The Vancouver Canucks first-rounder has been a revelation in the SHL this season with Vaxjo, leading the league in scoring and helping the Lakers maintain their perch atop the standings.
Last year, he ripped up the second-tier Allsvenskan with Timra and a big question in the off-season was how the teen would adjust to a bump in competition in the SHL. Turns out, Vaxjo was a perfect fit.
“I really like it,” Pettersson said. “It’s a great organization and when I met them in the summer, I felt very positive. My brother (Emil, who was drafted by Nashville) joined as well, so that was big for me.”
At the world juniors last season, Pettersson had some great offensive opportunities, but was totally snakebitten. This time around, he has been huge, tying for the team scoring lead with seven points (five goals) through six games.
Against Team USA, it was his laser-beam shot that opened the scoring in the second period, setting the stage for what would eventually become a 4-0 lead at one point.
“He’s an amazing player,” Jonsson-Fjallby said. “You saw it on the first goal; he’s a sniper and I’m glad we have him.”
While the Swedes pushed back against the heavy Americans, Pettersson himself isn’t a brute, but his compete level can’t be questioned.
“We said we were going to play hard and work hard, be harder to play against,” Pettersson said. “Whatever happened, we were going to play our way and we did it really well.”
That hasn’t always been the case for Sweden in the past, where the team would find itself hitting a wall against other traditional powers in the medal round after cruising through the preliminaries. Sweden had a close quarterfinal against Slovakia, but the opponent just didn’t have the talent to make them pay. Pettersson can be his own most vocal critic and that appears to be spurring him on in Buffalo.
“Yeah. I always want to play at my best level,” he said. “The quarterfinal wasn’t my best game and I didn’t sleep so well that night. But we won the game and that was the most important thing.”
Sweden has fantastic game-breakers this year – heck, they have players like that nearly every year – and in Buffalo they are continuing to lead by example. Along with Pettersson, captain Lias Andersson (NYR) had a stunning give-and-go goal with Fredrik Karlstrom (DAL), while top 2018 draft prospect Rasmus Dahlin made a key defensive read with Team USA pressing late, clearing the puck out of danger.
Now the table is set for a chance at gold and the Swedes are happy to have the firepower of a player such as Pettersson on their side.
“We talked about it before coming here,” said coach Tomas Monten. “We talked about it during the game and we talked about it after – everyone wants to win the last game and that’s what we’ve prepared for.”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.