THN in Sochi: Swedes avoid ghost of 2002

Sweden punched its ticket to the Olympic semifinal with a 5-0 win over Slovenia, avoiding the embarrassment the team faced in 2002 when it lost to Belarus in the quarterfinal. The result was never really in doubt, but you know how these things can go.

SOCHI – If the Swedish Olympic team ever needed a reminder of the perils of taking an opponent too lightly, all it had to do was look back to the team that embarrassed itself in 2002.

In that quarterfinal game, the Swedes were shocked by Belarus, losing 4-3 on a goal that went off goalie Tommy Salo’s head. Suddenly, a team that had cruised through the preliminary round with a 3-0-0 record, the same one this year’s team had, was inexplicably out of the tournament. The roster included Hall of Famer Mats Sundin, future Hall of Famer Nick Lidstrom and current Swedish veteran Daniel Alfredsson. It was so bad that the national newspaper in Sweden published on its front page the picture of each player, listing his NHL salary and labeling him a traitor.

And for two periods, that possibility existed again. This time it was against Slovenia, a country that has only 148 registered men’s hockey players and seven indoor arenas. The Slovenians had emerged as the darlings of the Olympic tournament and entered their dressing room trailing the Swedes just 1-0.

With the ghosts of 2002 following them to the room, the Swedes then got serious. This is a program that has instilled in its players something of a swagger and an expectation for victory. No longer is it acceptable for the pleasant, polite Swedes to lose. And the team took the hint, pumping in four goals on eight shots to cruise to the semifinal against the winner of the Russia-Finland quarterfinal later today.

“One bad bounce…and a hockey game can change so fast,” said Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped all 19 shots he faced. “It can seem like we’re controlling everything and then in one shift everything can change. But that’s the beauty of the game, too.”

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Having avoided an embarrassment, the Swedes are the only team that has won all four of its first games in regulation time, but it hasn’t exactly been easy. Nor has it been for any of the other teams in this tournament. Those loaded with NHL players have come to the realization that other smaller countries that seem hopelessly behind in skill and strength are capable of playing with the heart of a lion in situations like this. One of the things that separates players who are playing in the NHL and those who aren’t in these games is the fact that the players from the smaller countries and those who aren’t in the NHL can’t do it with any level of consistency. In a seven-game series, most of the hockey powers would beat these lesser lights in five games. But if that one loss comes in the first game of the series, that’s enough to eliminate a team from the tournament.

Things will not get any easier for the Swedes now, nor should they. Getting to the real meat of the tournament, all of the teams are now coming together and hitting their strides. If it’s Finland, the Swedes will face a determined opponent that keeps coming at you in waves. If it’s Russia, they’ll be facing a squad desperate to be in the gold medal game on their home soil.

“The Russians have so much skill it’s ridiculous,” said Swedish defenseman and captain Niklas Kronwall. “They have some of the best players in the world who are very, very skilled individually. The last few years they’ve been taking the right steps in the right direction, playing more of a team game.”