SOCHI, Russia – Is it possible to be the top seed in the Sochi Olympic medal round and still be considered an underdog?
Yes, in the case of Team Sweden.
All the attention in the tournament has been on the Canadians, the Americans and the host Russians. The Swedes haven’t gotten the same play – perhaps because of the high profile injuries they’ve had, perhaps because their four victories in the tournament have been against low profile foes and so efficient
The Swedes, despite an incredible assemblage of talent and the tournament’s best record, have been somewhat of an afterthought.
“Every game has been a process for us. To build, to get better. You don’t expect everything to be perfect from Game 1. It feels like we’re improving. We’re getting there. And hopefully we play out best on Friday,” said goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
The Swedes are headed in that direction. They’re rolling three quality lines. Their mobile defense has excelled on the big ice. Lundqvist is locked in: .949 save percentage, 1.25 GAA and two shutouts.
“This tournament, when it comes down to it, is one game,” said Lundqvist, who led the Swedes to gold in 2006.
“It's tough. You need everything to work for you, like today they hang around for two periods, and you never know if they get a goal it could be a different game. You just need to play your best. You need to have that little extra lock-in in these types of games, but a lot of times you earn by working really hard and making sure you make good decisions out there. So far we've been doing a good job of that, I think.”
Sweden led Slovenia 1-0 after the first on a power play goal by Alex Steen. It remained that way until a third-period onslaught, in which Daniel Sedin, Loui Eriksson and Carl Hagelin scored in a 10-minute span. Hagelin added their fifth goal.
Hagelin said the Swedes needed to play with more energy and urgency at the start.
“We're not going to play a team that just wants to be there. We're going to play a team that wants to win, so we need to have the same mindset,” he said. “The thing is we have a lot of guys here that have been here before, that have won the Cup in the NHL and won Olympic gold, so we just need to realize that we're a good team and that we need to bring our energy from the get-go.”
One line that brought the energy: Loui Eriksson, Nicklas Backstrom and Daniel Sedin, which finally broke through with two goals.
“We haven't played bad but we haven't been able to put the puck in the back of the net and that's our job. Tonight was a step in the right direction,” said Sedin.
Their direction is pointed towards the semfinals, where either Finland or Russia await.
Who will it be?
"I think Russia will win this game,” said Swedish coach Par Marts.
Whoa, a coach making an emphatic prediction about the other side of the bracket?
"I think the Russian team will win,” he reiterated.
OK then. Lundqvist wasn’t about making predictions.
“I can’t control who we face, or how they play. My focus is on stopping the puck. Next round we’re going to face a team with really skilled players. It’s going to be a different type of game, and it’s going to come down to who can play the game at the best level,” he said.
“So far, it’s been a good ride for us. We’ve been overcoming some challenges.”