Another World Junior Championship, another semi-final loss. It’s become somewhat of a bitter tradition for Team Sweden in recent years. Despite their immense success in the preliminary rounds where they have gone a staggering 52-0, they can’t seem to get over the hump that is the playoff rounds. It doesn’t seem to matter what players make up the team either as bad luck follows them every year.
Here are three takeaways from the first game on semi-final Saturday where Team Russia defeated Sweden 5-4 in overtime to advance to the gold medal game Sunday morning. Sweden will once again attempt to salvage a bronze medal from yet another crushing defeat.
Hoglander Ejected Early
The bad luck started almost immediately as the tournament leader in points and one of Sweden’s best players, Nils Hoglander was ejected from the game for a hit to the head on Russia’s captain Grigori Denisenko. As the clip circulated the Twitterverse, many people saw it as a defensive move rather than an intent to injure. But as per IIHF rules, hits to the head carry at least a five minute major and game misconduct, so he had to leave the game.
Sweden then was forced to kill a five-minute power play where Ivan Morozov scored the tying goal off a clever pass from Vancouver Canucks’ prospect Vasili Podkolzin. He also had an assist on his winning goal in overtime. It was a massive blow early as they not only lost their most creative forward but also the one that has driven most of their offence in the tournament.
Related: Hoglander a Standout for Sweden at WJC
Questionable Goaltending from Alnefelt and Askarov
This game saw it all, questionable hits, penalties, and goals. The goaltending from Sweden’s Hugo Alnefelt and Russia’s Yaroslav Askarov was not a strength of either team right from the beginning. The former allowed a long-range blast from Rasmus Sandin early in the game and the latter saw a shot beat him five-hole just minutes later.
The goals came fast and furious in the first period as the frame ended with five goals and a lot of chances for both sides. Alnefelt had not allowed more than two goals in a game all tournament long and he ended this game with five against and his first defeat in the WJC. Askarov wound up sitting on the bench when the winning goal was scored as he was replaced by Amir Miftakhov after Nils Lundkvist scored the go-ahead goal late in the third period.
It will be interesting to see what both nations do with their goaltenders as they enter the next round of play. Alnefelt bounced back after the first goal making 39 saves to give his team a chance and more importantly finished the game. Askarov, on the other hand, looked shaky all game and only made 21 saves on 25 shots. Russia will have a big decision to make when the gold medal game comes around on Sunday.
Power Play a Factor for Sweden & Russia
Before this game, Sweden was one of the more disciplined teams in the tournament. That all changed in this game as they took a total of 35 minutes in penalties. Granted, 15 of those minutes were to one player in Hoglander, but it was still a surprising development from a team that has stayed away from the penalty box.
Both teams had success with the man-advantage in this game as they combined for a total of five power play goals. Most of Russia’s shots and momentum came from it, so it definitely was a factor in the win. Sweden’s power play got them back in the game when they fell down 3-1, so it ended up being important for them as well.
If Sweden hopes to salvage something from this tournament, they have to stay out of the box. Canada and Finland are ranked two and three respectively with the power play, so it will be crucial to remain disciplined.
What’s Up Next for Sweden
Sweden will now wait for the outcome of the second semi-final to see if it will be Canada or Finland facing them for the bronze medal on Sunday at 9 am ET/6 am PT. If it’s Finland, it will be a rematch from the preliminary round where they squeaked by with a 3-2 overtime win. If it’s Canada, it will be the first time they have met since they denied Sweden the championship in 2018.
I’m sure Sweden is disappointed with another poor result in the playoff rounds, but they can’t let it affect their performance in the bronze medal game. Now that gold and silver are off the table, they need to regroup and come away with something for their nation. With the talent and depth this team has, they definitely can do it. Hopefully, there is no suspension in the cards for Hoglander and they can have one of their best players back for the showdown against either Canada or Finland.