Stealth Swedes gaining momentum


SOCHI, Russia -- Sweden? Sweden? Sweden? Ah yes, yellow jersey, three blue crowns? Won a gold medal back in 2006?

Now we remember.

A month ago, folks were lining up to pick the Swedes to win a gold medal at the Sochi men's hockey tournament. Then top players Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen couldn't make the trip because of injury. Captain Henrik Zetterberg went down early in the tournament after re-aggravating a back injury. And though they won all three preliminary-round games, there was something, well a little unsatisfying about the Swedes' game.

And with the attention of the hockey world diverted to Canada's lineup dilemmas, the Russian arsenal failing to launch after their emotional tilt with the U.S. last Saturday and the impressive play of the Americans, the Swedes got pushed further and further off the Olympic radar.

"Please keep it that way," said veteran winger Daniel Alfredsson shortly after the Swedes shut out upstart Slovenia 5-0 in the first of four quarterfinal games Wednesday.

"I think there's a reason you talk about those big three, especially us, too, with some of the injuries we've had," said Alfredsson, who collected an assist on the first goal of the day -- a Swedish power play late in the first period.

"But we're just going to plug along and take each game as it comes, and I don't think anybody wants to look too far ahead. But it's a great feeling knowing that we're in the semifinals and gear up here for a big effort on Friday."

Under the radar or not, the Swedes were the first of the four quarterfinalists determined playing at noon local time. They will play the winner of the Russia/Finland quarterfinal.

Although the Finns and Swedes have a long and often tumultuous history on and off the ice and met in the 2006 Olympic final in Turin, Italy, Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson figures either way it'll be fun.

Playing the Finns?

"That would be an awesome game. But it's always fun to play in front of a crazy crowd so it would be really fun to play against the Russians, too. But it's always special to play against Finland. It doesn't matter what team we play, it's going to be a really fun game to play anyway. I'm just looking forward to the game," Hjalmarsson said.

Although the Swedes have been living off their power play, leading the tournament in man-advantage productivity, they have struggled somewhat to generate offense at even strength in the tournament. At least until Wednesday when they scored four times playing 5-on-5 all in the third period.

"There's a lot of things that we can work on," said acting captain Niklas Kronwall, who picked up an assist on Wednesday. "I thought tonight our neutral zone was better. I thought tonight was a step in the right direction. We played with more energy.

"We haven't played our best yet, I think we all feel that. But I thought tonight was a solid game right through."

If there is a sign that perhaps this was the Swedes' turning-the-corner moment that all Olympic champions talk about turning as the tournament unfolds, it was Daniel Sedin's goal early in the second period that gave the Swedes a 2-0 lead and some much-needed breathing room.

The tally ended a grisly stretch of 22 straight games (including his NHL games) without a goal dating back to Dec. 30.

"He told me 24," Alfredsson said with a smile. "And a big one, too, at that time of the game and the Olympics. ... When you go longer periods, it's something that obviously becomes something you have to deal with every day. It's a big relief I'm sure for him, but more-so for us. That's a big goal for us; hopefully that gets him going."

Sedin said he'd lost count of the goal-less streak but figures the Swedes are tracking in the right direction.

"Our first game was probably our worst game, and this game was probably our best game," said Sedin, who has three assists through four games to go with his lone goal." That's a good sign. We obviously have to be better to beat Russia or the Finns, and I think we will be."

If there is something the Swedes would like to do better as they hope to advance to their second gold-medal game in the last three Olympic tournaments is to finish off teams.

The Swedes outshot Slovenia 16-5 in the second period, but through 40 minutes, the score was just 1-0. And were it not for a handful of solid Henrik Lundqvist saves, Slovenia might have tied the game and put a different complexion on this game.

"They had a few chances, but I thought we played a really smart game, a strong game," said Lundqvist, who stopped all 19 shots he faced and has now stopped 92 of 97 shots he's faced in leading the Swedes to a 4-0 record. "We believed that we could create enough chances to end this game, and in the third period we really stepped up and probably played our best period of the tournament so far. It's a process. We just hope we can continue to grow as a team, and we'll have to play our best hockey on Friday.

"This tournament, when it comes down to it, is one game. 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."

Even as the Swedes pulled away in the third period with four goals, it was hard not to appreciate just what kind of accomplishment this tournament meant for the Slovenian national team. In their first-ever Olympics and with only one NHLer, L.A. Kings center Anze Kopitar, the team was expected to be lapped by the rest of the competition here.

Instead The Slovenians played Russia tight in their opener and then upset Slovakia 3-1 in their second game and then knocked off Austria 4-0 in Tuesday's qualifying game. "It stinks losing right now, that's for sure," Kopitar said, "but I think in a little while when it's all said and done, we're going to feel tremendous pride with what we accomplished. Just to get into this tournament and the way we represented our country here, it was a surreal feeling within the locker room.

"I hope everyone else outside hockey and back home recognize what we did here and what we've accomplished and how much effort we put into this thing."

The Slovenians represent part of the magic of this Olympic tournament, the belief that all things are possible. And who knows what kind of boost this tournament result gives to a tiny hockey community back home.

"I sure hope so," Kopitar said. "I think a lot of positive things are happening back home with hockey. I guess with us winning the [Stanley] Cup a couple of years ago, the guys qualifying for the Olympics and now this result here. Things are rolling. So now hopefully kids can pick up a hockey stick and start playing. Hopefully in the near future we can develop some good hockey players."