They can remember it all, the seven of them who were there. They can remember the sick feeling when Russia scored with less than 90 seconds left in the third period to force overtime. They can remember the shootout with Russia scoring and their captain, Anton Lander, being turned aside.
It was the worst, said Swedish defenceman Patrik Nemeth. Their gold-medal dreams dashed by those unsinkable Russians. And now here they are a year later, Sweden and Russia, on another collision course at the world junior championship.
This time it’s not a semi-final showdown; it’s a Saturday night round-robin meeting to determine which side advances directly to one of two semi-finals. And in case the Swedes needed another reminder of just how dangerous Russia can be, Evgeny Kuznetsov provided it the other night with a nine-point virtuoso performance against Latvia.
“We know [the Russians]have good players,” said Nemeth, one of seven Swedes back from the 2011 team. “We remember last year. We were feeling good because we had played so well and then it was over … It was a long flight home.”
The Swedes have made a talking point out of what unravelled in 2011. They had stormed through their round-robin games beating both Canada and Russia and were ahead by a goal in the semi-final when Russia roared back. That was the win that emboldened the Russians and helped help them stage an even bigger comeback in the gold-medal final against Canada.
For the Swedes this year, it’s been altogether different. Instead of starting strong, they’ve had their struggles taking too many penalties against Latvia, allowing too many goals on too few shots and having to go to a shootout to defeat Switzerland. Rather than fret over it, the Swedes have taken a philosophical approach.
“Last year, we played the first four games really good,” said Roger Ronnberg, whose team ended up missing the medal podium completely. “We won the group but we got beat in the playoffs right away. It’s better if the team is better in the last game.”
That message – save the best for last – is being reinforced by the returning players.
“They remind all the guys that they haven’t won anything,” Ronnberg added. “Stay on the ground. Keep working. Don’t look too far ahead, but look back.”
The Swedes could match up well against Russia if their goaltending is solid. To this point, Johan Gustafsson has looked beatable while Russian counterpart Andrei Vasilevski has posted back-to-back shutouts. The rest of the two lineups boast equal strengths.
The Russians have young stars in Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, a hot hand in Nikita Gusev and the redoubtable Kuznetsov as their catalyst. (“It’s difficult to compare,” Kuznetsov said of the 2011 and 2012 Russian teams. “All were older players, except me. But this team has more depth, more talent.”)
The Swedes counter with the draft eligible Filip Forsberg, mad Max Friberg (with his stick-riding goal celebration) plus the eye-catching Mika Zibanejad in his first world juniors. Zibanejad, the Ottawa Senators’ first-round draft pick of this past summer, has been listening to his more experienced teammates and is now preaching their rhetoric.
“Sometimes we play good. Sometimes we’re not focused,” he noted. “We’re having too many zone minutes [in their defensive end] That’s not going to be good for us in the long term. We’re working on it.”
Overall, the Russians are rounding into a team at a quicker pace than the Swedes. Russia has scored 20 goals and allowed one through three games. It has the top penalty killing and the best save percentage from its goaltender. Sweden finally showed some dominance Friday by thumping the Slovaks 9-1. Maybe now the Swedes will begin playing their best hockey by looking back and not too far ahead.
“What did you learn from last year’s loss to Russia?” Friberg, one of the seven returnees, was asked.
“Not to be satisfied with winning the [pool group]or anything like that,” he answered. “Think about the next game and never be really satisfied until you have the gold medal around your neck and on the way home.”