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TORONTO – Mindset has been a key factor in the World Cup of Hockey.
We’ve seen a Canadian team trail for less than three minutes in the tournament, with the confidence they’re better than seven other teams. We’ve seen an under-23 team dazzle the hockey world by putting the pedal down offensively without recourse or repercussions. We’ve seen an American team overlook a seemingly beatable opponent in Team Europe, and then exhibit a defeatist attitude when things went south against the Canadians (before losing a meaningless game to the Czechs).
Sweden entered its semifinal game against Europe on Sunday afternoon in Toronto with one thing on its mind: Don’t screw up.
Don’t push the pace too fast. Don’t make errors that played into the hands of the savvy, veteran Europeans, who made them pay for them in a 6-2 exhibition loss. Don’t allow a team that was content to play a conservative, counterstrike game to frustrate them.
They lost the mind game.
They lost the hockey game, 3-2, in overtime.
They lost the chance to play for the World Cup, as Europe advanced to face Canada in the best-of-three finale.
“I think their strength is a little bit that no one believes in them. They can play that way. They can sit back and take chances when they get them. That’s how they won tonight,” said center Henrik Sedin. “When you lose you always wish you did something else, but today it was a little tough to get into the rhythm. In the first period and the second period we took a few penalties and it was tough to get going there. I thought in the third, when we started pushing a little bit more, I thought we took over the game.”
This is true. The Swedes had 17 shots on goal in the third period to Europe’s eight, and got the game-tying goal at 15:28 from Erik Karlsson to force overtime. Tomas Tatar’s second goal of the game at 3:43 of overtime won it for Europe.
Sweden’s coach, Rikard Gronborg, was correct after the game when he pushed back on the idea that Sweden was “passive” in the early going. That’s not the right term. “Overcautious” gets you closer to Sweden’s problem.
“I don’t think we were passive. I think you’re wrong there. Obviously we need to show patience, and I think we showed patience. Not that we’re playing defensive. I think a misconception of that,” he said. “What we wanted to do was obviously make sure we don’t get turnovers and we don’t get obviously odd-man rushes against, and I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight. We put ourselves in a position of winning this game. In the offensive zone we don’t put reins on our players.”
The question facing Sweden in the loss is whether they were too cautious in the first 40 minutes before Tatar’s goal 12 seconds into the third; and whether attempting to win a patient, methodical game against a team that apparently excels at it was one of the strategic blunders of the tournament.
“Yes and no,” said forward Gabriel Landeskog. “I think it’s a matter of picking our spots and it’s a matter of knowing your team and knowing your capabilities. Obviously we know what our strengths were and we tried to play to those, but at the same time you’re playing against good players here and you take chances they’re going to end up in the back of your net if you don’t succeed.”
Henrik Sedin echoed that.
“I thought we played a good game that way. They wanted us to start getting frustrated. Start making plays to get goals. Had we done that, it wouldn’t have been a 2-2 game. It would have been a 4-1 game, for them. And we knew that,” he said. “It was just a matter of taking over the game. And we did in the third. We felt like we were going to win.”
But Daniel Sedin admitted that Sweden allowed Team Europe to dictate terms on the pace of the game through two periods.
“In the games they played so far, they sat back and waited for someone to make mistakes. We didn’t want to make mistakes. Maybe that’s why it looked like we didn’t push the pace,” he said.
But Sweden did make one mistake, or at least one of their key players did: Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, on Tatar’s first goal.
2-1 Europe thanks to Tatar pic.twitter.com/cuD2hbVUKd
— Stephanie (@myregularface) September 25, 2016
His shot through defenseman Anton Stralman’s legs fooled Lundqvist, playing at the top of his crease to challenge it. The puck hit his glove, he fell backward, and Tatar was able to tuck home the rebound.
“It handcuffed me a little bit. Tough time to make the first save, and I wasn’t able to come across with my body. I knew that I was a tough position with that first save because he surprised me with the shot,” said Lundqvist. “It’s always hard when you take that split second to pick the puck up. The ‘react.’ I could feel how late I was to react.”
Which is, in the end, the eulogy for Team Sweden: Late to react.
Late to take push the pace, to play the kind of offensive game that might have earned them a spot in the World Cup Final. Instead, they played the game that Team Europe had convinced them they had to play, and in the end, that only benefitted Team Europe.
“It’s definitely a bad taste right now,” said Landeskog. “Everything other than a gold medal is a failure in our eyes, and I think that’s what everybody in our dressing room believes. We had one goal in mind and we didn’t manage to accomplish that. This one definitely stings. This one definitely sucks.”
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