Projected Starter: Henrik Lundqvist (New York Rangers)
Team Sweden has one huge advantage that only a few other teams will have when the Sochi Olympics get started next week. I am not sure of the schedule for men’s hockey, but when it does start, Sweden will have an undeniable advantage between the pipers.
Henrik Lundqvist is arguably the best goaltender in the world and was the starter in net for Sweden during its gold medal triumph back in 2006. He has a 7-2 record and a 1.85 GAA over the last two Olympics, which gives him more experience on this stage than almost every other starting goaltender expected to compete in Sochi.
Lundqvist will return as the backbone of his nation’s team. Sweden might have an interesting advantage in goal over other top medal contenders — there is no question who is king (pun intended) in the net.
Sweden will, once again, be a top gold medal contender because it has an elite goaltender anchoring an ultra-talented blue line. Lundqvist is a big-game goalie who makes the clutch saves late in matchups when there’s no room for error.
Sweden will not however have much experience on the goaltender depth chart.
Jhonas Enroth (Buffalo) and Jonas Gustavsson (Detroit) are the backups.
The rest of the Sweden Olympians are as follows:
• Defensemen: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niklas Kronwall, Victor Hedman, Johnny Oduya, Henrik Tallinder. Alexander Edler, Niklas Hjalmarsson.
• Forwards: Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Nicklas Bäckström, Jimmie Ericsson, Jakob Silfverberg, Loui Eriksson, Johan Franzén, Gabriel Landeskog. Carl Hagelin, Marcus Krüger, Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, Daniel Alfredsson. (Henrik Zetterberg is now out of the Games due to a herniated disc in his back. The entire country of Sweden knows that they are in trouble now)
Henrik Zetterberg out of Olympics
The top pairing should be Ekman-Larsson and Kronwall. These two players are phenomenal defensively because of their high hockey IQ, responsible positioning, willingness to block shots and experience playing against opposing teams’ best forwards. This duo would make up Sweden’s best possible shutdown pairing in Sochi.
A pairing of Karlsson and Hedman should be able to dominate on an Olympic-sized sheet of ice because these players are two of the best skating defenseman in the NHL. They have tremendous speed and the ability to skate out of trouble to avoid the forecheck. Karlsson and Brodin should also feature on the power play because of their puck-moving and playmaking skills.
The third pairing could look familiar to Blackhawks fans. Oduya and Hjalmarsson were one of the finest pairings in the 2013 playoffs for Chicago and played a critical role in the team’s Stanley Cup run. Hjalmarsson is a top-tier two-way defenseman who’s complimented perfectly by the offensive skills and mobility of Oduya.
This blue line has very few weaknesses and will make Sweden one of the most difficult teams to score on in Sochi.
The Swedes have a lot of Olympic and NHL experience at forward, headlined by veterans from the 2006 gold medal team including Zetterberg and the Sedin twins. There’s a lot of offensive skill in this group, but above all else, the two-way abilities of these forwards is what’s most impressive.
Zetterberg, Eriksson, Berglund, Kruger and Landeskog will provide responsible defense, consistent back checking and fight for loose pucks in all three zones. This is a disciplined group of forwards who understand what it takes to win important games.
As for specific line combinations, don’t be surprised if the Vancouver Canucks (Sedin twins) teammates are together for chemistry reasons. Kriger, Steen and Hörnqvist would also make a solid checking line and a trio that could be trusted in defensive zone situations.
Sweden has a well-rounded collection of forwards that will provide experience (Zetterberg, and Sedins), speed (Hagelin), skill (Sedins and Backstrom), defense (Eriksson) and youth (Landeskog).
Goaltending: Sweden has a gold-medal-winning goaltender in the prime of his career starting in net, which gives it a tremendous advantage over other top contenders, such as Canada and Russia, that have inexperienced or unreliable netminders.
Lundqvist has only been defeated twice in nine career Olympic games. He’s fully capable of handling the pressure and expectations that come with being the No. 1 goalie on a gold medal contender that’s trying to make up for a disappointing fourth-place finish from 2010.
Incredible Depth and Talent on Blue Line: Sweden has one of the deepest blue lines of all 12 nations that will compete at Sochi. Best of all, it’s a group of defensemen with the perfect amount of mobility, speed and awareness to excel on the Olympic-sized sheet of ice that will be used in Sochi.
With so many offensive defensemen expected to make the final roster, including Ekman-Larrson, Brodin, Oduya and Karlsson, Sweden should get plenty of scoring production from the blue line, especially on the power play. There’s an abundance of puck-moving and playmaking skill on the back end.
Stars With No Olympic Experience: Even though there are some returning veterans who were part of the 2006 gold medal squad, many of the most important players have zero Olympic experience.
Landeskog, Kruger, Steen, Berglund, Ekman-Larsson, Karlsson, Hjalmarsson and Edler have never competed at the Olympics. Asking them to play key roles on the team without any experience in this type of competition is a risk, but it’s one that Sweden has to take because many of these talented young players represent the future of this nation’s hockey program.
Lack of Physical Defenseman: Kronwall is the only hard-hitting defenseman on the Swedish blue line, and this could be an issue if this team faces a gritty opponent, such as the United States, in one of the final rounds of the tournament.
None of the defensemen on Sweden’s Olympic camp roster finished in the top 40 of hits and Hjalmarsson was the only player to rank in the top 25 of blocked shots last season.
Sweden normally goes into the Olympics as one of the underrated contenders despite its impressive amount of depth and talent throughout the roster. Luckily for the Swedes, this team should be much-improved from the 2010 roster that lost the bronze medal game to Finland.
The blue line is also a lot better than it was three years ago. The loss of Nicklas Lidstrom is tough, but the additions of Ekman-Larsson, Karlsson and Brodin give Sweden the best group of young defensemen in the world.
In addition to the young players who will be eager to make their mark on the game’s biggest international stage, the presence of experienced veterans such as Zetterberg and the Sedin twins will ensure that Sweden doesn’t falter when the pressure mounts.
Bovada currently gives Sweden the third-best odds to win the gold medal at 4-1, which is a fair estimation of its chances in Sochi. If Lundqvist plays well and the young stars shine under the Olympic spotlight, expect to see Sweden back on the medal stand in February.
2010 results: Sweden lost in the bronze-medal game last time, to finish in fourth place. Lost 4-3 to Slovakia in the quarter final
Olympic Prediction: 5-1 record, bronze medal winners
Next Opponent: today (Friday) vs Switzerland