At the last two world junior hockey championships, coach Par Marts has drawn a stark distinction between his country and the host nation: Sweden produces hockey players, Canada produces winners.
Marts is out to change that, one tournament at a time. This year in Saskatchewan, his "Young Crowns" looks even better than the 2009 club, which was considered the greatest collection of under-20 players in Swedish history (featuring NHL-calibre defencemen Victor Hedman, now with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Erik Karlsson, now with the Ottawa Senators).
But the 2010 edition has more speed, and more skill, and it also has an element Marts has been working hard to instill. The front of the net - or "Canada's specialty," as Marts calls it - has been the Swedes' focus for the last year.
It is dual mission: Score more goals from that region, and prevent opponents from getting there. If achieved, Marts believes it will change the Swedish mentality, and teach his players winning is difficult and it requires performance in the difficult areas of the ice.
"We have good skills: passing, receiving, skating, stick-handling," Marts said. "Those are the typical Swedish skills. In that case, I think we are better than Canada. But in Canada, you have taught the guys to win from a young age. That's what we're working with. That's an important skill."
Traditionally, of course, crashing the front of the net, and clearing it with ferocity, hasn't been the Swedish way. At one point, those North American traits were as foreign to the Swedes as preassembled furniture from IKEA.
But returning defenceman David Rundblad said a 5-1 loss to Canada in the gold-medal game last year in Ottawa was the ultimate lesson. He's now more aggressive clearing the goal-mouth, and says he has gotten stronger in order to achieve that goal.
"We're a very skillful team and good with the puck," he said. "But the most important thing is to score goals."
To that end, Marts has stressed that creating aesthetically-pleasing chances is not aim. Scoring goals, particularly "dirty goals" as he calls them, is.
Yesterday, the killer instinct was evident.
Despite being outshot 26-3 in the first period, the Swedes throttled their arch-rivals from Finland, 7-1, behind a relentless attack. Sweden finished preliminary-round play with a 4-0 record (combined score 28-6), and received an automatic berth into the semi-finals on Sunday.
Wingers Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Mattias Tedenby flashed their world-class puck skills and scored highlight-reel goals, but the Sweden also got some grimy tallies from captain Marcus Johansson and forward Jacob Josefson.
"Put the puck on the net, go for rebounds, and [create]traffic," Marts said. "We have to love that type of thinking."
In the opening stanza, goaltender Jacob Markstrom was sensational, and kept his team even until a goal from Dennis Rasmussen. Marts said he expected nothing less from one of the world's best goaltending prospects, who stopped 39 shots.
In the second period yesterday, Markstrom made two remarkable saves from in tight. The first was quick rebound and point-blank chance for Teemu Hartikainen, which was blocked with his shoulder. The second was on a tip by Matias Sointu, which the goalie caught. After that, the Finns were barely noticeable at the front of the net, and shots were hard to come by.
"We have a good goaltender, and he should be there when the other guys aren't," Marts said.
The coach has immersed himself in Canadian hockey since last month, and has been consumed with beating Canada since last year's final. He spent last November watching junior games in Ontario, and had his team play exhibitions against Canadian university clubs, which typically feature older, more physically mature players.
Rundblad said net-front lessons, and a gold-or-bust standard, have been the coach's running themes. And Marts said everything about his last 360 days has been geared towards a rematch with Canada.
"Directly after the last final, my entire mind has been going in that direction," he said. "How can we improve? How shall we do it? What do we have to work harder on?"
The answer lies at the front of net. And more often than not, so do the victories.Report Typo/Error