Going into the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Team Sweden was considered to be one of the only teams capable of competing with the Canadians, and giving them a run for their money. Over the course of the tournament, the Swedes showed that they were deserving of that reputation, as they took down the Russians and Finns before forcing overtime against Team North America (though they would eventually lose).
Their efforts earned them the top spot in Group B, and a semi-final matchup against Team Europe; considered by some to be one of the weaker entries into the tournament.
A rematch of the 2014 gold medal came seemed inevitable, especially after Canada breezed past Russia. Team Europe had gone on a Cinderella run, but they couldn’t match the Swedish level of talent, especially on defense. With Henrik Lundqvist in goal, it seemed like the Swedes would steamroll the Europeans, and book their ticket to a best of three final against Canada.
Team Europe, however, had different plans, and knocked Sweden out of the tournament with a 3-2 overtime victory on Sunday. Team Sweden never really had the advantage in the game, and never quite pushed the Europeans to their breaking point. As a result, they’re going home early, without ever having played their Canadian rivals.
The loss to Team Europe can be characterized by one 15 minute stretch that started around the halfway point of the second period, and ran into the first minute of the third period. For the first 20 minutes of the hockey game, Team Sweden controlled play; they got the majority of the shot attempts, they kept the puck in the offensive zone, and for the most part, they were the team getting chances.
All of that pressure paid off in the early stages of the second period, when Nicklas Backstrom found the back of the net. If Sweden would have stayed on the gas pedal, and continued to apply offensive pressure to the Europeans, the game might have had a different outcome.
Instead, they eased off, and the Europeans started to turn the tide. When Marian Gaborik scored at the 16:27 mark of the second period, Team Europe was out-shooting the Swedes at 5v5. Europe would continue to apply pressure until Tomas Tatar scored during the opening shift of the 3rd period, and gave his team a 2-1 lead.
The Swedes now needed a goal. They showcased just how dominant of a team they could be, piling shots onto Jaroslav Halak, who held strong until the final five minutes of the third period, when Erik Karlsson’s shot from the point slipped past Halak.
Why couldn’t they be that dominant for the whole game? Yes, score effects played a role, but even with the score tied, the ice was tilted in Sweden’s favor. Their desperate scramble at the end to tie the game was only necessary because of their passive play in the second period.
Sure, Team Sweden may have run into a hot goaltender, but the best way to beat a hot goaltender is to never let the team in front of him have a chance to win the game. After their first goal, the Swedes eased off of the gas, and let Team Europe back into the game.
Excluding the brief 15 minutes of dominance from Team Europe, this semi-final match was all Sweden. They’re still going home, and it’s mainly because of their willingness to sit on a one-goal lead.
One can’t help but wonder what could have been had the Swedes not checked out for the majority of the second period, as there’s no denying they had the potential to smother the Europeans with offensive pressure. If they had played a full 60-minute game, instead of a 45 minute one, they would be playing Tuesday night against Team Canada in a best-of-three series.
The decision on the behalf of the coaching staff to ease off, and play for a 1-0 finish, is what cost the Swedes their chance at taking down the Canadians.
We’ve seen how Team Sweden plays with a lead; they don’t aim to score, and they resort instead to playing a restrictive defensive system. It worked against Russia when the team had a two-goal lead, but even then, they almost gave up two goals in the final minute. Against Finland, the worst defensive team in Group B, Sweden only managed one real goal; their second goal was an empty netter in the dying seconds of the third.
The Russians and the Finns didn’t quite get the puck luck that Europe did, so Sweden was able to escape with victories. Against the Europeans, though, a couple of quirky bounces resulted in a lead for Europe, and forced the Swedes to go back on the offensive. They dominated play when they wanted to, and for some odd reason, they decided to only do so for three-fourths of the game.
They let Team Europe back into the game by clamming up into a defensive shell. Sure, the Europeans got a number of lucky bounces, and a superb performance from Jaroslav Halak, but at the same time, the Swedes let their opponents back into the game with a dismal performance in the second period.
Their passive play cost them, and they’ll be stuck waiting until the next major international tournament to redeem themselves.