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With minimal NHL stars, Sweden prevails 6-5 against upstart Belarus squad

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

QUEBEC - What little NHL-calibre talent Team Sweden has at the IIHF World Hockey Championships, they're going to need to get the most bang for their buck.

Rickard Wallin deflected a Nils Ekman shot at 10:32 of the third period to give Sweden a lead it could hold as it fended off an upstart Belarus club 6-5 in preliminary round action Saturday at Le Pepsi Colisee.

"The second period wasn't good at all for us, but we were lucky enough to get out with a tie," Wallin said.

"Scoring six goals is not bad, but obviously we have to have better defensive play to compete against better teams."

Belarus capitalized on a number of breakdowns in the Sweden end, which Wallin termed stupid decisions with the puck.

"They got a couple of easy rebound goals," Wallin said.

Defenceman Magnus Johansson and forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Robert Nilsson, all NHLers this past season, each scored a goal apiece.

Backstrom and Nilsson, both NHL rookies last season, each picked up an assist in a hard-fought, see-saw battle between the two countries in preliminary round action.

Patric Hornqvist scored twice for Sweden while Viktor Kostyuchenok, Sergei Zadelenov, Alexei Ugarov, Aleksandr Zhurik and Dimtry Meleshko replied for Belarus.

But there were no shades of the stunning 4-3 Belarus upset of Sweden at the 2002 Winter Olympics this time around, the Swedish players assured.

"It was a different kind of game, there was a lot of open space and Belarus made what they had to with the chances that they got," said Nilsson.

"I think that if we had buried the chances that we got, there could have been a lot more chances for us."

Nilsson says the lack of Swedish star power isn't a concern in the dressing room.

"Sweden has always played like a team," Nilsson said. "There are a couple of good players who play in Russia and a couple of good players from the Swedish Elite League, so we're not worried at all."

For a variety of reasons, including injury, an overwhelming number of Sweden's star players declined to play for them at the world championships this year.

So there are no Sedin twins in Quebec City. Ditto Markus Naslund, Peter Forsberg, Daniel Alfredsson or Mats Sundin or the plethora of Detroit Red Wings and others still caught up in NHL playoff action.

Head Coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson chalks up the missing players to bad luck and injuries, and doesn't expect he'll be able to add any other NHL talent. But he's confident his team can compete at this tournament.

Even if the Swedes are lacking in star power, they have seven NHL players, which is seven more than underdog Belarus sported Saturday.

One addition, Ruslan Salei of the Colorado Avalanche, should help the Belarus blue-line starting Sunday according to coach Curt Fraser.

"Unfortunately for us, when you score five goals, you'd better win the game," Fraser said.

"I thought our team as a whole played a very good game."

Johansson, who plays for Florida Panthers, got the scoring going with a point shot that beat a screened Vitali Koval at 3:59 of the first.

Backstrom, an NHL rookie of the year candidate, wired a wrist shot to make it a two-goal lead.

But that's where Sweden's dominance ended as Belarus kept up the pressure and made the most of its scoring chances.

Kostyuchenok cut the lead to one with a late first-period goal, followed by a Zadelenov goal early in the second to tie the game up, beating Swedish netminder Mikael Tellqvist.

Less than a minute later, Ugarov beat Tellqvist to take a 3-2 lead.

Belarus would run into penalty trouble midway through the second period and Sweden took advantage, with Hornqvist scoring on a 5-on-3 advantage to square the game at three.

Zhurik's point shot gave Belarus a short-lived lead when Nilsson squared the game at four at 17:21 of the second period.

The teams traded goals early in the third as Meleshko gave Belarus a 5-4 lead, knocking in a loose puck with traffic in front of Tellqvist.

But Hornqvist's second goal of the night squared the game at five before Wallin gave Sweden the lead.

Belarus, which pulled their goalie at the end of the game, failed to score against the Swedes who outshot them 46-24.

Despite giving up eleven goals between them, neither coach blamed suspect goaltending for their loss.

Gustafsson said Tellqvist didn't have his best game, but you can't always blame the goalie.

"He can't stop everything even if you'd like it to be like that sometimes," Gustafsson said. "He didn't get the help he needed to close the door."

Koval, 28, has never faced this level of competition before and Fraser was sure the goalie would be more comfortable next time out.

"We made some poor decisions in the defensive zone and the Swedes took advantage of it," Fraser said.

Sweden next plays France on Monday night while Belarus and Switzerland play Monday afternoon.


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