Looking out for number 1

2006 tandem's back, but "The Monster" may steal the show

28.04.2009
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PostFinance Arena Berne  Switzerland

Johan Holmqvist backstopped Sweden to a historic gold medal in Riga in 2006. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

BERNE – Back in 2006, Johan Holmqvist backstopped Team Sweden to a World Championship gold, shutting out the Czechs in the final. His backup was Stefan Liv, one of nine players who were on both the World Championship and the Olympic gold medal teams that year.

That year, Holmqvist won the Honken Trophy as Best Goalie in Sweden, an award he won again this season. Stefan Liv won it in 2002 and last season, Liv won the Golden Puck as Swedish Player of the Year.

Now, what’s all this talk about Sweden having a goaltending problem?

In the Czech Hockey games a week before the World Championships, both Holmqvist and Liv looked unimpressive. Holmqvist played just one game and let in four goals, while Liv played two with a 86.07 save percentage.

Not the dress rehearsal Sweden wanted.

In the Swedish Elitserien playoffs, Liv’s HV71 beat Holmqvist’s Frölunda, and Liv won the goalies’ battle when HV71 came back having been down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, making Holmqvist look like a mere mortal.

And then in the final, even if Liv was HV71’s most valuable player, Färjestad’s Jonas Gustavsson was the man of the hour. His goals-against-average in the five final games was 2.0, and 1.5 in the last four games that Färjestad won. En route to the final, Gustavsson broke the Elitserien shutout record with 220 minutes and 40 seconds.

Under normal circumstances, Gustavsson would be a shoo-in to make his World Championship debut, but unfortunately for coach Gustafsson, the goaltending circumstances aren’t normal this year. Gustavsson missed all but one Euro Hockey Tour tournament this season due to injuries and illness, keeping his number of appearances to three, and when he was supposed to report to the World Championship camp, his mother got hospitalized, which forced the lanky goalie to stay at home, by her side.

How Gustavsson copes with the situation remains to be seen. Maybe his focus is fully with hockey, as a distraction from the real world. Maybe the real world cuts into his focus on the games. Only Gustavsson himself knows.

Stefan Liv has been the backup goalie - the bronze medal game goalie - in several tournaments, and of the Swedish goalies here, he’s played most games with the national team, 117. Holmqvist has suited up 58 times for Sweden, Gustavsson just three times.

In the first two games, Holmqvist and Liv have played well, Liv making several key saves in the game against Latvia – if not in the shootout.

Coach Gustafsson has three good goalies at his disposal, and he needs to find the hottest one that will seize the opportunity to be great. To do that, he may end up using three different goalies in the team’s three first games – which is better than pulling a rabbit out of the hat in the last game, like Swedish head coach Leif Boork did in the 1984 Canada Cup final, dressing Göte Wälitalo in the last final against Canada.

Wälitalo had played just one game in the tournament prior to the final but in an attempt to shake up his team, Boork shuffled the lines and sent in Wälitalo.

Canada took a 5-0 lead and while Sweden rallied back to 6-5, the game was lost.

“It was stupid,” says Boork, who’s in Berne as a columnist for a Swedish paper.

“I was trying to shake things up, but also, our starter, Pekka Lindmark had injured his thumb but we didn’t want to announce it at the time. But mostly, it was just a young head coach making strange decisions,” he says with a grin.

Gustafsson knows better. That’s why he’ll wait and see.

RISTO PAKARINEN

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