QUEBEC – Canada and Sweden haven’t had a chance to develop much of a rivalry at this year’s IIHF World Hockey Championship.
The two teams were separated by 1,000 kilometres for the first two weeks of the tournament and could only find nice things to say about each other after finally skating on the same ice surface here Thursday.
Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist went so far as to say that his team wouldn’t be able to match Canada’s talent during their semifinal game on Friday (5 p.m. ET). That’s not to suggest he’s conceding the result just yet.
“They have a lot of NHL players and star players,” said Lundqvist. “In the lineup, yeah, I think they have a better team. But I’m not sure that they play better as a team.
“That’s been our strength.”
It was an assessment that Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock was fully willing to endorse.
He’s eager to see how his players perform now that the pressure of getting to the medal round has been removed. The Canadians had a light skate at Le Pepsi Colisee on Thursday afternoon and were briefed about what to expect from a Swedish team they had only seen on TV so far.
“The Swedes have the best team game going of the four teams left as far as I’m concerned,” said Hitchcock. “They have the best continuity going and we’re going to have to break that continuity.
“We think we can but we’ve got a big job ahead of us.”
At least they’ll have a full team to try and get it done.
Eric Staal attended his grandfather’s funeral in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Wednesday and missed Canada’s quarter-final victory over Norway. That game was tied 2-2 midway through the second period but Staal never doubted that he’d be on a plane bound for Quebec.
“I knew they’d pull it off,” he said.
The 23-year-old won gold at last year’s world championship and didn’t consider giving up his spot on this team after finding out his grandfather John Staal had died on Sunday.
“No, I don’t think my granddad would have liked that,” he said. “I think he would want me back as soon as I could. He was one of our biggest fans growing up and watched every game on the couch since I played in the NHL.
“He’d want me here to get it done for Canada and get a gold medal. So that’s what we’re going to try and do.”
They need just two more wins to make it happen on what could be a magical weekend in Quebec.
Russia plays Finland in the other semifinal Friday (1 p.m. ET). The gold-medal game is set for Sunday afternoon.
Canada’s biggest test against the Swedes will likely be solving Lundqvist. He’s a Vezina Trophy finalist for the second straight season and was one of the few star players to join the Swedish team for this event.
Twenty-one Swedes declined invitations to play here before Lundqvist accepted after his New York Rangers were bounced from the NHL playoffs.
“I felt like the season ended too fast,” he said.
Hitchcock referred to Lundqvist as one of the best goalies in the world and said that he would spend time talking with his players about ways to score on him.
At the other end, Canada will counter with Pascal Leclaire as the goalie rotation continues. This will likely be his final start as Hitchcock strongly hinted that Cam Ward would get the call in the team’s last game.
That was a concern for another day as Leclaire was only focusing on the task at hand. He knows that the soldout crowd will be expecting a Canadian victory.
“We’re the host team and we do have the big names in our lineup,” said Leclaire. “That kind of adds a little extra pressure.”
The idea of that pressure is the only thing that drew any ill will on this day.
Swedish forward Karl Fabricius told reporters in his native language that he was tired of the Canadian media portraying the home team as the favourites.
“They are so … self righteous,” he said. “It would be nice to nail them.”
Those comments hinted at a bit of edge lying beneath all the smiles and platitudes that were on display during Thursday’s round of interviews. These teams will be playing a semifinal game for the third straight year – Sweden won in 2006, Canada won last year – and have always had tough battles at this tournament.
Canada is 28-24-5 against Sweden at the world championship.
Friday’s game will likely be a physical battle as the Canadians look to make use of their size advantage. It’s something the Swedes expect and are ready for.
“I’ve never passed up a hit in my life and I’m not going to tomorrow,” said Douglas Murray, the rock-hard Swedish defenceman who appears to have been chiselled out of stone.
The four finalists are the same that appeared last year in Russia. Ultimately, there probably isn’t much that separates them.
Canada hopes to establish an edge with its desire.
“Just your will,” said defenceman Ed Jovanovski. “You’ve got to have the passion and excitement to do all the little things so that at the end of the game you’ve got one more goal than they do.
“It might take 55 minutes, it might take overtime. But I don’t think we can go into this game thinking that it’s going to be a walkthrough.”