Canada's Ryan O'Reilly last year against Sweden's Martin Lundberg. Photo: Andrea Cardin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Do Swedes believe they can beat Canada for gold?
It’s an old, familiar song for Swedish hockey fans. And it wasn’t performed by ABBA, Europe, or Roxette.
The lyrics go something like this: “What just happened to our hockey team against Canada?”
For years, Sweden has been bedevilled by its IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship failures versus the motherland of hockey. It goes well beyond last year's unseemly 6-0 quarter-final defeat.
Since the IIHF instituted the playoff system in 1992, Sweden’s record against Canada in World Championship medal round games where gold is up for grabs (i.e quarter-finals, semi-finals, or finals) is four wins and nine losses. Canada beat Sweden in the finals in 1997, 2003, and 2004. The most recent Swedish victories were en route to gold, 5-4 in the 2006 semi-final and 3-2 in the 2013 quarter-final.
In the big picture, things have gone downhill for the blue-and-yellow team ever since their inaugural IIHF playoff clash with Canada. That was the unforgettable 1994 Olympic final in Lillehammer, Norway, where Peter Forsberg’s one-handed shootout goal against Canada’s Corey Hirsch gave Sweden its first Winter Games hockey gold ever.
On Sunday, goalie Henrik Lundqvist and captain Joel Lundqvist, the twin 35-year-old brothers, will lead Tre Kronor in their bid to oust the two-time defending World Champions. In the grudge match semi-finals, the Swedes beat Finland 4-1 to advance, while Canada downed Russia 4-2.
“I think the last time we won the World Championship we had two twins on our team, so why not this time?” joked Swedish head coach Rikard Gronborg. He was alluding to Henrik and Daniel Sedin’s key role in Sweden’s 2013 title run on home ice in Stockholm.
Henrik Lundqvist is the lone returnee on either team from the 2003 or 2004 finals. Seeking his first Worlds gold, the New York Rangers superstar should be ultra-motivated. In ‘03 and ‘04, he had different kinds of front-row seats as the Swedes frittered away leads.
In 2003, Sweden boasted star power with Forsberg, Mats Sundin, and others. Lundqvist sat and watched while Mathias Tjarnqvist and Mikael Renberg made it 2-0 in the first period. But Canada roared back to win it on Anson Carter’s wraparound overtime goal on Swedish starter Mikael Tellqvist, which was video-reviewed for nearly 10 minutes.
In 2004, the Swedes were stacked again with Forsberg and Daniel Alfredsson. However, they squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-1 and fell 5-3. Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth, Dany Heatley, and Jay Bouwmeester all had two-point outings. Meanwhile, legendary Swedish defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom wound up -3 on the night, and Lundqvist, then just 22, lost his goaltending battle with Canada’s Roberto Luongo.
Ah, the demons of yesteryear. Self-belief is what's needed to slay them.
Heading into Sunday’s showdown, Gronborg expressed confidence: “We feel like we have a very good shot at the Canadian team. I think our team is prepared for it. We built our team a little bit to play that game, with defencemen and forwards that like the physical part of the game, as well as can move the puck. Canada’s gonna have to be ready to take us on.”
“They’re a great team, but we are too, so it’s going to be a good game and fun for fans to watch,” added defenceman Jonas Brodin. “A lot of players from both teams are from the NHL, but we’re playing on the big ice.”
The great psychological quandary for the Swedes is that even when on paper their roster has appeared equal or superior to Canada’s, they still have often fallen short, like in 2003 and 2004.
How about this year? You can debate the question of overall depth, but Gronborg has a player of higher current stature at each position than Canadian coach Jon Cooper does.
Lundqvist, of course, is a 2006 Olympic gold medalist and 2012 Vezina Trophy winner, and boasts a record-setting 10 straight full NHL seasons with 30 or more wins. On 2017’s deepest defence, huge Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is the leading light and a Norris Trophy finalist with 72 NHL points. And at forward, while 21-year-old William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs is vying for the tournament scoring crown (14 points), the key addition has been Nicklas Backstrom. The veteran Washington Capitals centre, who came fourth in league scoring with 86 points, has dominated in all three zones in Cologne and Paris, earning six points in four games and going 65 percent in the faceoff circle.
This is not to take anything away from Mark Scheifele, who jumpstarted Canada’s comeback from a 2-0 deficit against Russia, and was right behind Backstrom with 82 points for the Winnipeg Jets. Or Nathan MacKinnon (14 points), whose power play chemistry with Mitch Marner (11 points) has delighted. Or Colton Parayko, who is having a breakout tournament with his awe-inspiring slap shot (7 points) and could crack the media all-star team even as a late arrival on defence.
But you can argue that Sweden – on paper – should have a great shot at beating Canada. And yet it will feel like an upset if that happens, because of the aforementioned history.
Statistically, there’s little separating the two teams right now. Canada has scored 38 goals to Sweden’s 36. Canada’s second-ranked power play could be a game-changer (41.1 percent), but Sweden has the tournament’s best penalty kill (92.5 percent). And Calvin Pickard, Canada’s unheralded starting goalie, has recorded numbers (1.48 GAA, 93.3 save percentage) similar to those of Lundqvist (1.50 GAA, 93 percent save percentage).
Unquestionably, the Canadians will give everything they have to three-peat. “It’s pretty special to be playing for gold tomorrow,” said Parayko. “It gives you chills, goosebumps when you think about it. We have a good group and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Deep down, do the Swedes believe they have what it takes to knock off Canada for Worlds gold for the first time? They’d better.
Because back home in Stockholm and Gothenburg and Ornskoldsvik and Mora, fans will be sitting in front of their TVs, fearing the worst: “Oh no! We’re going to have a lovely power play where we pass it around for two minutes and hit the post twice, and then some Canadian is going to go down to the other end and score, and we’re going to fall apart.”
It’s an old, familiar song for Swedish hockey fans. And it wasn’t performed by ABBA, Europe, or Roxette. Hearing the Swedish goal song, “En For All For En” by the Poodles, multiple times on Sunday would surely help to exorcise those demons. We’ll have to wait and see.