Sweden turns around medal-round struggles to reach WJC final

Lias Andersson, right, of Sweden celebrates his goal against the United States with teammates (Nathan Denette/CP)

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The Swedes have been opening-round lions and medal-round lambs the last few turns at the IIHF world junior tournament.

In fact, they haven’t lost a qualifying game since 2007. Thus, they have been, counting this year’s tournament, a No. 1 seed entering the elimination round 12 times. By rights, you’d presume that they have, oh, maybe five or six golds, a passel of silvers, and various shiny treasures designated to top players at their position in the tournament.

The reality, however, is they have but one lonely gold, four silvers and one bronze – somehow five times a team that registered four consecutive wins in the first round couldn’t find two wins in three possible games in the elimination.

It happened too frequently to be an aberration and thus folks tried to plumb the failures for a cause. Of course all you can do is hypothesize but in conversation with a few NHL scouts in attendance in Buffalo, you can at least get an expert opinion, if not an educated guess, and also come away with reasons to think that this year’s Swedish team might hear “Du gamla, du fria” after Friday night’s gold-medal final.

The Swedes didn’t exactly roll over the U.S. in the 4-2 win in the semis Thursday afternoon.

They had but two shots on American goaltender Joseph Woll through the first 15 minutes or so of action. Through that patch goaltender Filip Gustavsson turned aside a few golden scoring chances and the defending champion’s power play was surprisingly listless.

Really, through 20 minutes, Sweden was just hanging on and you had to suppose form would hold, eventually cracking Gustavsson and pulling away.

Not at all how it turned out.

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Said one scouting chief whose team owns one of the players in the Swedish line-up: “It was like the Swedes froze up in the first [against the U.S.] … [We] have seen that before. [They] always have skill, all kinds of ability, but the moment has turned out to be too big for them.”

It wasn’t in the semifinal at the Key Bank Center, however.

The U.S. didn’t quit and they had their chances – too often with rolling passes that were mistimed and pucks that they couldn’t put on target.

No matter.

Sweden dominated play over the last 40 minutes, running out to a 4-0 lead before the Americans came back with a couple of goals in the last eight minutes to make the score closer than the game.

It looked like Alex Nylander might have opened scoring for the Swedes. A Buffalo first rounder in 2016, Nylander was at the side of the cage and tried to jam the puck past goaltender Woll – he did so with enough force that you thought he might jam Woll himself behind the goal line. The play went upstairs for video review but the one angle left no doubt that Woll had stoned Nylander.

Instead it was Elias Pettersson who struck first for the Tre Kronor and fittingly so.

The Vancouver Canucks 2017 first-rounder has been the Swedes’ best forward at the tournament and probably the best in Buffalo, and the shot he wired high past Woll with six and half minutes left in the second frame was of a piece with the impressive stuff he has shown all tournament-long. Not for a shift against the Americans did it look like moment was too big for him.

Six minutes into the third period Swedish captain Lias Andersson made it 2-0 on a pretty two-on-one with Fredrik Karlstrom, who did the lion’s share of the work – Karlstrom waited and waited for Woll and a U.S. blue-liner to commit and put the puck on Andersson’s stick with a yawning cage in front of him.

Within the next two minutes the Swedes clinched the game and broke the spirits of the Americans with two shorthanded goals on a single penalty kill. The summary will show that Oskar Steen and Axel Jonsson Fjallby put the puck past Woll but that doesn’t start to capture the authority with which they scored – absolute nothing-to-lose rockets from the slot through retreating defenders who might have thought the Swedes would just dump the puck in the corner and get off for a change.

The two American goals, a power-play marker by Kieffer Bellows and Brady Tkachuk’s with the American net empty, didn’t really make much for suspense.

In a missive at the end of the qualifying round, it looked like the Swedes were the most skilled team in the tournament and they affirmed that opinion against the U.S. Thursday.

Rasmus Dahlin, the projected first pick in this June’s NHL draft, led the Swedes in ice time with almost 24 minutes, a lot of heavy lifting for a 17-year-old in a high-pressure competition. Dahlin was conspicuously solid and he has lots of complementary support on the Swedish blue line, not the least of it being Toronto Maple Leafs first-rounder Timothy Liljegren.

After the first intermission you never thought that the moment was too big for the Swedes, only that they’re going to make their opponents’ moments very large Friday night.

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