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Team Canada staff have been scouting Sweden all week at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. But Matt Duchene did his own reconnaissance last season.
Looking ahead to Sunday’s men’s gold-medal showdown with the Swedes, Duchene said he remembers the lessons he learned playing in the Swedish Elite League during the most recent NHL lockout.
It’s patient hockey, not the hard fore-checking, turnover-inducing game Canada and the United States forced on each other in the semi-finals on Friday.
“They like to slow the game down, they like to regroup, they almost play the game like soccer on this big ice,” Duchene said. “It’s going to be a chess match.”
Anyone who watched the two men’s Olympic semi-finals Friday witnessed exactly what Duchene is talking about. Canada and the U.S. played a quick but grinding defensive game, which American bench boss Dan Bylsma said was one of the fastest games he’d ever coached.
Sweden and Finland, on the other hand, played a puck-movement game, with a focus on eating up space. It was positional hockey.
When the Finns, down 2-1 late in the game, tried to press for the equalizer, they found themselves forced to the outside by the Swedes, unable to get a shot on net when it mattered most.
The Canada-U.S. game had 68 shots. The Sweden-Finland game 51.
“I have a great appreciation of Swedish hockey after playing in that league [in late 2012] and playing against them last year” in the World Championship, the Colorado Avalanche forward said.
Duchene expects the Swedes will try to push a similar brand of hockey on the Canadians, using the bigger, international ice surface to their advantage. But just like the semi-final against the U.S. was a tight matchup, the margin of error against Sweden will also be slim.
“We’re going to have to be ready,” Duchene said. “It’s special to meet any of those big teams. You want to go through the best to win this tournament. We just took down the U.S., who was one of the best, and now we’ve got to go through Sweden.”
But if anyone on Canada’s roster knows the Swedes, it’s head coach Mike Babcock. The Detroit Red Wings coach will face three of his NHL regulars Sunday: forwards Daniel Alfredsson and Gustav Nyquist, and defenceman Niklas Kronwall.
“What I do know about the Swedes – well, I know lots of them, actually – they’re good players and they play with no ego,” Babcock said. “They’re going to be a hard test, we understand that.”
The coach said he is “a huge fan of Swedes” and Sweden is “a beautiful country,” but when the puck drops Sunday, those NHL allegiances will be cast aside. “We all know that I’d be cheering for them if they were playing against anybody but us,” he said.
Since the NHL began sending players to the Winter Olympics, Canada has won gold twice (2002, 2010), and Sweden once (2006).
Duchene knows how important the gold medal is to Swedish hockey.
“It definitely means a lot. International hockey is their Stanley Cup,” he said. “And for us, this next game is going to be the biggest of my career, and the biggest game for a lot of other guys’ careers to this point.”