International Ice Hockey Federation

Swedes come out firing

Karlsson's pair lifts World Champs past Czechs

Published 18.02.2014 23:39 GMT+4 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Swedes come out firing
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 12: Sweden's Gustav Nyquist #41, Patrik Berglund #14 and Jakob Silfverberg #18 celebrate after a first period goal against the Czech Republic during men's preliminary round action at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/HHOF-IIHF Images)
The Three Crowns are shining. Sweden opened the men’s Olympic tournament with a solid 4-2 win over the Czechs at the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Wednesday.

Superstar defenceman Erik Karlsson led the way with two goals, and Patrik Berglund and Henrik Zetterberg also scored for Sweden, which enjoyed a 4-0 lead before the halfway mark. Oliver Ekman-Larsson added two assists.

Marek Zidlicky and Jaromir Jagr replied for the Czech Republic.

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, often touted as the world’s best, earned his eighth career Olympic win as the Czechs outshot Sweden 28-25.

"We got the start that we wanted, and our power play was clicking in both the first and the second period, so we kind of had the momentum going into the third," said Sweden's Gabriel Landeskog. "They pushed, like we knew they would, but I think we did a good job of keeping them back."

In a surprise move, Czech coach Alois Hadamczik did not even dress his lone NHL netminder, Ondrej Pavelec of the Winnipeg Jets. Instead, he went with a KHL duo: Jakub Kovar of Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg got the start, with SKA St. Petersburg’s Alexander Salak serving as the backup.

Both Czech goalies would end up seeing action, and that tells you what you need to know about how this game shaped up.

Faster and positionally superior, Sweden controlled the tempo from the outset with its skillful brand of heads-up hockey.

The average age on the Czech roster is 30, compared to 28 for the Swedes, and this outcome will do nothing to discourage questions about whether Hadamczik’s roster is too creaky to compete effectively with the elite contenders. (That average age is, of course, inflated by the presence of a 42-year-old Petr Nedved and a 41-year-old Jagr, which is at least partially symptomatic of the Czechs' stalled youth development.)

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"We were probably a little flat," said Czech defenceman Tomas Kaberle. "Their defence helped them a lot. They played like a five-man unit. Their PP was pretty solid tonight."

It was a confrontation between the two nations that have won gold outside North America since the NHL began full Olympic participation. The Czechs triumphed in Nagano, Japan in 1998 and the Swedes claimed top spot in Turin, Italy in 2006.

At 10:07, with a delayed penalty coming up to the Czechs, Karlsson opened the scoring with a drive from the right point, beating Salak on the glove side.

"I just stood in front of the goalie on his first goal," said Swedish veteran Daniel Alfredsson, Karlsson's former captain with the Ottawa Senators. "He’s good. He joins the rush well. He’s so fast that I think he makes it tough for the other team to defend him."

Just over three minutes later, Berglund took a pass from Ekman-Larsson, raced down the left side and hammered a slapper from the left faceoff circle. The rolling puck beat Salak on the stick side. Lundqvist recorded his first career Olympic assist on the play.

The Swedes had two goals on eight shots, and things were already looking dire for their foes.

Just 51 seconds into the second period, Zetterberg looped into the right faceoff circle and wristed one past Kovar for a 3-0 lead, with Alexander Steen screening in front. That was it for Kovar, who was yanked in favor of Salak.

"Something had to happen, I guess," said Kaberle. "It wasn’t an easy game for [Kovar]. We didn’t help him at all."

Zidlicky took his second minor of the night, and the Swedish power play cashed in for the first time, as Karlsson powered a rising howitzer from the centre point past Salak at 4:07.

Now the Swedes had four goals on 11 shots. It looked like the game was already unofficially over.

But then the Czechs awoke from their slumber. They finally got on the board at 9:12. Patrik Elias skated down the right side and left a drop pass for Zidlicky, who sent a slapper under the crossbar, delighting the many Czech fans in the crowd of 11,419.

At the halfway point, Jagr powered in off right wing and scored one-handed, sliding the puck inside Lundqvist’s right post. Tomas Plekanec appeared to push defenceman Niklas Kronwall into the Swedish netminder on the play, and it was reviewed, but deemed good.

It was the eighth career Olympic goal for the legendary Jagr, appearing in his fifth consecutive Winter Games.

In the third period, the Swedes ran into penalty trouble, with Ekman-Larsson and Marcus Kruger taking back-to-back minors. But the Czech power play, despite mustering good pressure in the Swedish end, proved to be as futile as searching for happiness in a Kafka novel.

With under seven minutes to play, Lundqvist foiled Kaberle, who sailed through the Swedish defence and attempted a close-range backhand. Shortly afterwards, he deflected a hard Michal Frolik slapper over the glass to maintain the Swedes' two-goal gap.

Even with the third-period shots favoring the Czechs 14-5, there was no joy to be had for them.

"They created some chances but in the end I think it was a good start for us," said Swedish captain Henrik Zetterberg. "Obviously, there are a few things we have to work on and adjust to. That's how you get better in these kinds of tournaments - you learn as you go on."

The Czechs will next face Latvia on Friday, while the Swedes take on Switzerland that day.

While there is still plenty of hockey to be played, this win may well wind up sealing first place in Group C for the Swedes. They defeated Switzerland by a 5-1 count in the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship final in Stockholm last year. They beat Latvia 6-1 in their only previous Olympic encounter in 2006, and have lost just once to the Baltic nation in 11 World Championship encounters.

The last time Sweden lost to the Czechs at the Olympics was in the era of Czechoslovakia, a 3-1 defeat on 19th February 1992.