THN in Sochi: Canada’s mission? Shut down Erik Karlsson

Despite being a defenseman, Erik Karlsson has been one of the most dangerous offensive players in these Olympics. Two ways Canada can minimize his impact will be to stay out of the penalty box and in the Swedish defensive zone.

SOCHI – It’s not often a team goes into a game with a game plan of shutting down the other team’s top defenseman. But that’s exactly the scenario in which Canada finds itself a day away from the gold medal game at the 2014 Olympics.

That’s because Swedish defenseman Erik Karlsson has emerged as the most valuable player in the tournament so far. He was tied with Phil Kessel for the points lead in the Olympic tournament with four goals and eight points and has been the focal point of the most lethal power play in the tournament.

And this could be Canada’s biggest concern going into the game. The Swedes have gone 7-for-19 with the extra man, for a mind-boggling power play efficiency rate of 36.8 percent. But of bigger concern is the fact the Swedes are third in the tournament in power-play time at 31:38. By contrast, Canada is pulling up the rear in that category with just 15:41 of power-play time in five games.

So it appears there are two things Canada must do to avoid the Karlsson factor. First, they obviously have to avoid taking any unnecessary penalties. Second, they’ll want to have the puck on their sticks as much they did in the semifinal game against the Americans. And doing the latter will go a long way toward taking care of the former. It’s not often you get penalties when you’re controlling the puck and keeping the Swedes trapped in their own end will minimize Karlsson’s impact.

“If we can keep (Karlsson) in his own end, I think we’ll be OK,” said Canadian defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “But they’ve got some creative guys up front and they can certainly find creative ways to get the puck to him.”

The Swedes play a very good team game, too. Despite missing some of their most important players, they’re the only team in this tournament that has won every one of its games in regulation time. But so much of everything they do offensively comes from Karlsson, whose speed and skill make him a threat off the rush, while his shot and ability to direct the play from the blueline make him lethal on the power play.

Karlsson won the Norris Trophy two years ago and likely would have repeated the feat last year if not for a severed Achilles tendon that basically destroyed his season. There is little doubt that the deployment of Karlsson by Swedish coach Par Marts has been a huge factor here. Marts is of the opinion that he can live with Karlsson turning the puck over occasionally and missing a defensive assignment because of all the good things he does on the ice. Contrast that with Canadian coach Mike Babcock, who has a similar smooth-skating, high risk-high reward defenseman in P.K. Subban on his roster and refuses to even dress him.

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“They have some really skilled defensemen on their side,” said Canadian winger Patrick Sharp. “Guys you have to be aware of at all times. They seem to jump into the play, they’ve got great patience and all have good shots. A lot of their offensive threats come from their back end, but they’ve got offensive threats everywhere.”

Canada came into this tournament with the biggest roster of any team, with an average height of 6-foot-2 and an average weight of 209 pounds. That is an inch taller and 11 pounds heavier than the Swedish team, which might turn out to be a factor. If Canada wants to keep the Swedes hemmed into their own end and keep control of the puck, it will have to use that size and ability to its advantage. Or as Pietrangelo said, “We’re too big and strong and fast to give the puck up too easily.”

From a historical perspective, it has been four days short of 20 years since Canada and Sweden met in a game of this magnitude. That, of course, was when Peter Forsberg scored his legendary postage-stamp shootout goal against Canada to lead Sweden to the gold medal at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. But since NHL players have come to the Olympics, Canada and Sweden have only met twice – with Canada defeating Sweden 3-2 in the preliminary round in 1998 and Sweden defeating Canada 5-2 in the first preliminary game in 2002. But their paths have not intersected in a game of consequence. Every time one country has played for a medal, the other had lost in the quarterfinal.

That will change Sunday when two proud, hockey-crazed countries battle for supremacy on the world’s biggest stage.

“We like to brag that it’s our game,” said Canadian coach Mike Babcock. “If you think it’s your game, you’d better show it’s your game.”