Sweden tastes bitter defeat to Canada again, despite superior talent

Canada broke a 1-1 tie late in the third and added an empty netter to get a 3-1 win over Sweden and claim the gold at the World Junior Hockey Championship.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – History would show that, as world-junior tournaments go, Sweden is a fairly favourable matchup for Canada when the games matter most.

Okay, it’s not like Switzerland. Not a game that the team’s own coach would write off as unwinnable. Nonetheless, when the two teams stepped out onto the ice in Buffalo with the 2018 championship on the line, Sweden was still looking for its first win against Canada in three gold-medal games.

Add to that the time Canada beat Sweden in the last game of the round robin with the gold medal on the line in 1994 and you have the makings of a trend in a relatively warm-blooded rivalry between nations renowned for politeness.

And with Canada’s 3-1 win over Sweden on Friday night it’s now 5-0, though etiquette took a blow at the end of the proceedings.

Two Swedes were named as the best players at their positions in the post-final parting gifts presentation: goaltender Filip Gustavsson and defenceman Rasmus Dahlin had to skate out for their individual consolation prizes and managed to look like they’d rather be anywhere else.

The award for best forward of the tournament went to Casey Mittlestadt of the U.S. Clad in sweatpants, he waved to the fans at the Key Bank Center where he’ll be playing for the Sabres sooner rather than later.

Outside of goaltender Carter Hart, it’s difficult to imagine any other Canadian got much support for a positional prize for the directorate’s lever-pullers.

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We noted in this space after the semifinals that the Canadians’ skill level wasn’t really even with their opponents’ but that didn’t necessarily gift gold to the Swedes.

A lot of times at the world juniors over the years, in gold-medal games and at other junctures, Canada has gone into games versus Sweden as underdogs and come out with wins against what objective eyes would tell you was superior talent.

Frequently, at the ends of those games, you were left scratching your head, wondering exactly how the Canadian kids pulled it off. Were they not so callow, you’d have presumed that they did it with smoke and mirrors.

So it was Friday night when, as Swedish coach Tomas Monten described it, his crew “played their best game of the tournament and left it all on the ice.”

Through the first 30 minutes or so, the Swedes out-shot Canada by a ratio of 2:1, and possession was at least as one-sided, yet they trailed the team in red 1-0. The Canadians needed some confident goaltending from Hart and some puck luck to keep the game scoreless in the first, though they didn’t need luck so much as toil to open the scoring early in the second period.

They had only nine shots on net when Canadian captain Dillon Dube came down the left wing and, with Swedish defenceman Timothy Liljegren draped all over him, beat Gustavsson. Liljegren, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-rounder last June who is toiling this year with the Marlies, had some sweaty moments in Buffalo without the puck and this was his worst-timed one.

And if you were looking for a kid in the lineup who would step up in the crucible, Dube seemed more likely than most – a second-round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2017, he was as game as anybody on a roster not short of the oft-cited ‘compete level.’

The Swedes played some of their best hockey of the final in the stretch where they looked to tie up the contest. Dahlin, the projected first-overall pick in the NHL Draft next June, skated from the back line through traffic and came in from the point with baby-faced impunity. Not for nothing did he get the best-defenceman honours.

Yet the tying goal came when it looked like Canada had the advantage and was looking for breathing room. Tim Soderlund evened the game with a shorthanded goal, a rocket of a shot off a post, with seven minutes to go in the second period. It was the third shorthanded goal of the past two evenings for the Swedes – they managed two on a single shift against the Americans in the semi-final.

No matter, with the score tied 1-1 when the second intermission hit, you had a sense that Sweden’s best chance to close out the tournament had passed by, that it had allowed Canada to stick around far too long.

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The Swedes may have played their best game in the final, but the Canadians’ best period of the tournament came over the final 20 minutes they would ever skate together.

Chances started to balance out. With every passing minute all the talent in the Swedish lineup mattered less and less, and with fewer than two minutes to go it became entirely inconsequential.

Tyler Steenbergen tipped home a shot from the point by Conor Timmins and cheers rained down in an arena that was pretty well filled after being conspicuously quiet and even more conspicuously empty over the holiday season. Twenty-six seconds later, Alex Formenton added an empty-net goal that ended all remaining suspense.

I’ve seen more than a few teams lose tough games in the final and I’ve seen them after a thumping. However, I don’t know that I have ever seen a team take a loss harder than the Swedes Friday night.

Never mind captain Lias Andersson throwing his silver medal in the stands — if he had waited until boarding the bus he could have tossed it in the Niagara River and gone full Muhammad Ali — to which coach Monten cut him slack. “He was disappointed,” Monten said. “I can understand.”

Elias Pettersson, the Vancouver first-rounder who would have been my vote for the tournament’s best forward, wept openly when talking to the Swedish media after the game.

With a little help from a translator, Pettersson said: “I’m proud of the guys, and to be a part of this team even though it wasn’t enough. We’ve been aiming for this gold medal for so long, believing that we would make it. I think that we were the better team in this game but it wasn’t enough. Everyone is grieving.”

Pettersson thought that his team took it in the neck from the referees.

“I’m not gonna throw the referees under the bus,” he said a moment before doing exactly that. “It was kind of obvious that they couldn’t handle the pressure from Canada’s fans.”

I’m not out to bury Pettersson, just the lede.

Fact is, the Swedes’ talent left no margin for error for the Canadians to even stay in the game. But make no mistake, the Canadians won the game by making no mistakes.