MALMÖ – Sweden is heavily favoured to beat Slovakia in Thursday's late quarter-final (17:30). But the events of January 2, 2009 should be a warning to the hosts.
On that date, a U.S. squad loaded with top NHL prospects like James van Riemsdyk and Kevin Shattenkirk was supposed to romp over Slovakia in its World Junior Championship quarter-final in Ottawa.
Instead, the American dream turned into a nightmare. Despite outshooting the Slovaks 47-18, the U.S. fell 5-3 to their underdog opponents on the strength of great goaltending from Jaroslav Janus and two goals by future Detroit Red Wing forward Tomas Tatar. It was one of the biggest World Junior upsets ever.
Thus, there is no room for Swedish coach Rikard Grönborg’s squad to be complacent despite entering the Playoff Round with a perfect record of four regulation wins and a tournament-leading goal difference of 22-7.
Probably the biggest weapon the Slovaks have going for them right now is scoring, driven by the trio of Martin Reway (10 points), David Griger (8 points), and Milan Kolena (8 points). They potted nine goals against Germany, more than either Canada or the United States was able to muster, and they also managed three goals against both of the North American powers in losing causes.
“I think it’s going to be a fun game to watch,” said Sweden’s Nick Sörensen. “They have a good team. I know they have a really good first line that scores a lot of goals. We’re going to have to respect them, like any team in this tournament. We’ll have to come out hard and play our game.”
Mentally and physically, the Swedish teams that attend the World Juniors are much tougher than their predecessors of 10 or 20 years ago. It’s shown so far in the way this year’s team has won different styles of games, whether pulverizing Norway 10-0 or edging Russia 3-2 on a late goal, as they did in their round-robin finale.
“I think we’re pretty confident,” said Sörensen. “We’re playing in front of a big crowd and we know everyone’s behind us.”
Heading into the quarter-finals, the Swedes have excelled in all aspects of the game, except for their penalty-killing, which has surrendered four goals on 19 opportunities for a percentage of 78.9.
Although blessed with current NHL forwards, like captain Filip Forsberg (Nashville Predators) and Elias Lindholm (Carolina Hurricanes), Tre Kronor offers the definition of a balanced attack. Ten players have registered four or more points thus far.
Top goalie Oscar Dansk has delivered the goods with his 2.33 goals-against average and 91.0 save percentage.
Barring any gaffes of epic proportions, Sweden, which is going for its fifth World Junior medal in the last six years, should oust the Slovaks and move on to battle the winner of the United States-Russia game. The Slovaks, of course, hope the Swedes are already focusing on the semi-finals and getting cocky. That’s probably Slovakia’s best hope of shocking the hockey world.