Russia charged hard with a late goal and a controversial disallowed equalizer, but Sweden outclassed its opponent with dominant defensive play.
TORONTO – Team Sweden did what it was expected to do for 59 minutes and 33 seconds Sunday in its Group B opener at the World Cup, and that was good enough to win. It survived a wild final blitz from Russia’s Alex Ovechkin, which included one legal goal and one disallowed goal, and escaped with a 2-1 victory.
“Escaped” is the wrong word, though. Sweden was the better team. It entered the tournament with a defense corps so elite that it rivalled or even exceeded Canada’s on paper. And that blueline, led by Victor Hedman, Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, was so dominant that it made the mighty Russian forwards look ordinary most of the day. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Nikita Kucherov. Vladimir Tarasenko. Artemi Panarin. Name the star scorer and he barely registered a blip on the radar Sunday. That’s because they spent most of the day forced to the perimeter by the impregnable Swedish ‘D group. And there was a specific game plan in place to make that happen.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Hedman said. “They’re so skilled. You look at their lineup, and it’s four even lines. All can skate and move the puck. For us it was about being physical, being close and eliminating them from the puck as much as we could.”
Ovechkin pointed out that Russia “played Sweden’s way,” with not enough speed through the neutral zone, and tried to make too many plays 1-on-1.
“They’re good skaters, good puck movers, Karlsson and those guys can skate,” Ovechkin said. “They can create some opportunities for their forwards. We’re disappointed, but we have to play our way. We can’t wait for something to happen. We have to move forward.”
Swedish coach Rikard Gronborg felt his forward group was just as instrumental in shutting down Russia, because the forwards choked off the attacks before they could start. The plan going in was to put heavy pressure on the ragtag Russian defense, Gronborg said, and to maintain offensive-zone possession with the cycle game. That’s where the master cyclers, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, came in handy on a line with new Vancouver Canucks teammate Loui Eriksson.
Not even learning shortly before the game that star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was too ill to play mattered in the end for the Swedes. Late replacement Jacob Markstrom was steady, stopping 27 of 28 shots, many of the most difficult ones coming in the third period.
“We’re very comfortable with him back there,” Hedman said. “We obviously want everyone to be healthy and ready to go, but at the same time ‘Marky’ had a great opportunity on the biggest stage, and the way he performed was unbelievable. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep the shutout, but we’ll take the two points and move on.”
The contest started out as a war of attrition. Russia, equipped with a below-average defense corps by the standards of this tournament, deployed a wise strategy, collapsing in front of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, clogging the front of the net and preventing clean chances from the slot. But Gabriel Landeskog’s power play tally put Russia behind and opened the game up midway through the second period. Hedman found himself alone in the slot a couple minutes later and buried a perfect pass from left winger Carl Hagelin to put the Swedes ahead 2-0.
The game was barely half over at that point, but it felt close to finished. Russia’s forwards looked disinterested, and Ovechkin even took a frustration penalty with a slash early in the third.
But everything changed at 19:27 of the final frame when Ovie threw a prayer of a wrister through traffic and solved Markstrom. Twenty-six seconds after that, a rebound popped up in front of Ovechkin. He gloved the puck out of mid-air – right into the Swedish net. An irate Ovechkin insisted the puck touched his stick, but the goal review suggested otherwise. The call on the ice was no goal, and the officials upheld it. Sweden held on for the final seven seconds. Russian coach Oleg Snarok said through a translator after the game that, while he hadn’t yet seen the replay, he trusted whatever the officials decided. Ovechkin didn’t agree. In a post-game scrum he swore he felt the puck touch his stick.
The Swedes were pretty much who we thought they were in their opener. They lack an elite sniper, with only one 40-goal NHL season on the entire roster. But their forward group only has to be decent for Sweden to go far in this tournament. The superstar D-men do the heavy lifting.
All hope is not lost after one game for the Russians, as they faced what may be the best defensive team top to bottom in the field. They should start finding the twine eventually. But with North American and Finland up next on the schedule, there’s no easy out. Group B is indeed the Group of Death.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin