In the most competitive game of the tournament, Sweden held off Russia 2-1 in the first game of Group B play. Even without Henrik Lundqvist, who was a late scratch due to sickness, the more detail oriented Swedes were in control throughout. On goals from Gabriel Landeskog and Victor Hedman, they blanketed a very talented Russian team until the final minute.
With Vancouver backup Jacob Markstrom getting the start, the Swedes did a good job in front of him. Russia boasts a roster led by captain Alexander Ovechkin. The relentless Caps’ superstar tried everything to get through a stingy Sweden team defense. If there was an edge for the Swedes, it came on the back end with the quarter of Hedman, Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Anton Stralman making it very tough on the supremely skilled Russians. Toss in the overlooked Niklas Hjalmarsson and Mattias Ekholm and it’s no wonder many like the Swedes to challenge Canada.
Despite limiting Russia’s scoring chances by keeping them outside, they nearly squandered a two-goal lead in the last 33 seconds of regulation. With key stars Evgeni Malkin and Nikita Kucherov reluctant to shoot, it looked like Russia would get shutout. But in desperation mode, Ovechkin was able to sneak a tricky wrist shot through traffic past Markstrom at 19:27 to end his shutout bid. He finished with 27 saves to get the job done in place of Lundqvist, who went back to the hotel two hours before game time.
Remarkably, Ovechkin nearly pulled off a great comeback. With starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky pulled for an extra attacker following a icing, Russia had 10 seconds left to make something happen. On a face off win, the puck somehow wound up rebounding out to Ovechkin. He wisely went to glove the puck down and thought he tied it with seven seconds left. The refs immediately waved it off while Ovechkin raised his arms and celebrated at the Russia bench. As it turned out, they got it right with Ovechkin unable to get the shaft of his stick on the puck before it went in. It did look to also go off Stralman’s stick. But the rule is he gloved it in. So, unless he got a stick on it, it’s no goal.
Due to the ruling, the face off came outside, dashing Russia’s comeback hopes. While Sweden is 1-0-0, Russia is basically in the same unenviable position as USA. They need to win the next two to have a realistic chance of advancing to the semifinals. They’ll have to come back tomorrow night and beat a very young and talented North America, who currently lead Finland 1-0 on a Jack Eichel tally from 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews. With Finland their third opponent in the round robin, it’s no easy task.
Even for a team that boasts some of the world’s best players. Russia isn’t just Ovechkin. There’s Malkin, Kucherov, former Red Wing turned KHL star Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vladimir Tarasenko, ’15-16 Calder winner Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov. They don’t boast the best D with vets Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin and newest Sabre Dmitry Kulikov leading the charge. However, there’s enough world class skill up front to compete. They’ll have to be in full attack mode against high flying North America and will need Bobrovsky to be at his best. He finished with 27 saves in defeat and wasn’t to blame on either.
As for Sweden, what makes them tough is how diligent their checking is. They compete for every loose puck. Led by Daniel and Henrik Sedin, they also boast Nicklas Backstrom, Landeskog, Loui Eriksson, Filip Forsberg along with underrated players Carl Hagelin, Jakob Silfverberg and Carl Soderberg.
On their first goal of two in the second period, it was Backstrom combining with Karlsson who set up a wide open Landeskog at the point for a one-timer thru a screen. The second tally was similar with Henrik Sedin getting the puck to Hagelin, who sent it across for a wicked Hedman one-time blast also through traffic.
It’s that kind of teamwork that makes the Swedes a tough draw. It’s why they have had success before winning Olympic gold in Torino back in ’06. They should be even tougher once Lundqvist returns. Given how well they played in front of Markstrom, who was strong, you have to like their chances.
In the second game, North America continues to lead Finland 1-0 late in the first period on ESPN2. They could easily be up 3-0 if not for highway robbery by Pekka Rinne and a goal post. We’ll have more on that one later.