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Swedes hope rebuilt program will lead to gold over Canada at World Juniors

OTTAWA - It has been nearly three decades since Sweden won gold at the world junior hockey championship, but the team in the blue and gold Tre Kroner jerseys feel the drought is about to end.

The Swedes have looked at least as good as Canada, and probably better, thus far. And now the two 5-0 sides are ready to settle the debate in the final at the soldout Scotiabank Place on Monday night (TSN, 7:30 p.m. ET).

``I wouldn't be any place but here,'' Swedish goaltender Jacob Markstrom, a Florida Panthers draft pick, said after a light practice on Sunday. ``I'm really looking forward to it.

``We have no pressure. It's 20,000 who are begging for Canada to score and booing for us, so it will be hilarious to play.''

Sweden's one and only win in the tournament was in 1981 in what was then West Germany. Since then, there have been five silver medals, two bronze and 19 years out of the medals

But a year ago, one of the most talented groups of young players the country has ever produced took Canada to overtime before falling 3-2 on Matt Holischuk's goal in the final in the Czech Republic. Five players are back from that team.

And the Swedes feel they are even better this time around with the rangy Markstrom in goal, and returnees like six-foot-six phenom Victor Hedman on defence and snipers Magnus Svensson Paajarvi and Calgary Flames first-rounder Mikael Backlund up front.

Sweden's record includes a 5-0 win in round robin play over Russia, which took Canada to a 6-5 shootout in the semfinals on Saturday night.

``We've been playing so good this year,'' said Backlund, who had two goals in a 5-3 semifinal win over Slovakia. ``We did last year too, but I feel really good now.

``We have the 5-0 over Russia and we just feel really good going into the final.''

The Swedes have done well at world championships and they won gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics, but the country that produced superstars like Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg and Niklas Lidstrom floundered at the junior level.

Before their silver medal last year, Sweden had gone 11 years without a medal at the tournament.

Rock bottom was 2003, when they needed a tight 5-4 win over Belarus to finish eighth and avoid relegation to Division One.

That prompted a bout of national introspection similar to what Canada went through when it called its Hockey Summit in the 1990s after a string of disappointments in international events.

Tommy Boustedt, director of youth development for the Swedish Ice Hockey Association, organized a commission of inquiry, bringing more than 100 people together to plot a new strategy.

The result was a plan to promote a new attitude aimed at winning, to provide better coaching for goaltenders at all levels, and to play a more physical and aggressive game.

It has taken a few years, but it looks to be paying off now.

``We have more focus now on individual development, not so much on the team,'' said assistant coach Peter Sundstrom, who played on the 1981 gold medal team with his brother Patric. ``No trap or anything. We want to play positive hockey.''

Goran Stubb, the NHL's director of European scouting, said there is a whole new approach to international play for Sweden's juniors.

``They threw everything into the wastepaper basket and went back to basics,'' said Stubb ``Now they have big players who are excellent skaters and very good with the puck.

``They play a physical game. Before, a typical game for Sweden was waiting for the opponent to make a mistake. Now, they control the game''

Coach Par Marts said he deliberately told the Swedish media that the team's goal for the tournament was to win gold, to underline the new emphasis on winning. Before, some felt the Swedes were happy just to be in the tournament.

``We're going for the gold so there's a lot of pressure, but pressure is a drive,'' said Marts. ``It's nothing bad.

``Everyone wants to win. It should be so, even for Swedish hockey players. We're talking about the gold, nothing else.''

Marts certainly has the team to aim high.

Markstrom has been a rock in goal with a 1.25 goals-against average and a .954 save percentage, while goaltending has been Canada's main source of concern.

On defence, Hedman has been improving as the event progresses, bringing a surprising flair for the attack for a big man. Some feel Hedman may be picked ahead of John Tavares in this year's draft although the gifted Canadian centre looks to have pulled ahead in that race.

Ottawa draft pick Erik Carlsson is a force on the point for Sweden.

At forward, Svensson Paajarvi must have scouts drooling with his speed and dynamic bursts to the net, while Backlund has been a constant threat.

Like Canada, the Swedes are a little banged up.

Los Angeles Kings prospect Oscar Moller has not been the force that was expected, but he played well and got his first goal against Slovakia. And winger Nicklas Lasu, a human wrecking ball who hits everything that moves, skated gingerly in practice with a sore thigh and may not be ready to play.

``We've got a good team and we feel really confident,'' said Svensson Paajarvi. ``I don't think we're looking at 1981.

``We look at last year when we were so close... we know we can have that gold medal, so we really want it.''


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