At long last, Olympic hockey is back, and Team Sweden kicked off its Group C preliminary round play against Latvia, kickstarting its quest to return to the podium for the first time since 2014. Despite the lack of NHL players in this year’s games, the Swedes boast 13 players with some experience in the league, which showed during crunch time of their 3-2 win over Latvia on Thursday morning.
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Sweden cruised through the first two periods, and though it wasn’t a perfectly clean game, the team did plenty to secure its first win in the 2022 Olympic Games. Here are three takeaways from Sweden’s 3-2 win over Latvia in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
Special Teams Almost Cost Sweden a Win
The Swedes jumped out to a 3-0 lead and seemed well on their way to securing a win in the opening round, but two separate penalties led to power-play goals for Team Latvia, who cut the deficit to 3-2 midway through the third period.
Fortunately for Sweden, it did not take any other penalties in the game.
Both of Latvia’s goals came on the power play, taking advantage of a surprisingly weak penalty kill by the Swedes. Though Sweden seemingly dictated play through the first two periods, holding the Latvians to just seven shots on goal through the first two periods, the Swedes’ inability to pad their lead almost came back to haunt them.
Forward Lucas Wallmark, who has 187 games of NHL experience split between the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, and Chicago Blackhawks, racked up six penalty minutes in the game, though he was able to help offset that by scoring two goals — more on that later.
Ironically, a late penalty by Latvia stalled any hope of a comeback, allowing Sweden to ultimately escape with a win, even if it was much more interesting than anyone had anticipated.
Defense Starts Strong, Fades Away
Team Sweden had plenty of firepower heading into its opening round matchup, but its defense stole the show early on Thursday. When not on the penalty kill, the Swedes’ defense shut down Team Latvia, and dictated play throughout the first two periods. The third, though, was an entirely different story, as they were outshot 10-8 in the final frame.
The game truly came down to the wire, as goalie Lars Johansson — who made several key saves throughout — stopped a point-blank one-timer with two seconds left to help cement the victory. Up to that point, the result was in doubt, a surprising turn of events in a game that most expected to be a formality. Johansson finished the game with 15 saves.
Team Sweden relied heavily on its NHL experience to come out on top, as Wallmark and Anton Lander, another former NHLer, provided all the offense the team would need to emerge with a win. In addition to the aforementioned experience Wallmark brings to the table, Lander has 215 NHL games to his name, all spent with the Edmonton Oilers.
In the end, it wasn’t pretty, but the Swedes did just enough to escape with a win and avoid what would have been a devastating loss in its preliminary opener.
Sweden Needs a More Complete Effort Moving Forward
Thursday’s game was a mixed bag, but it is just the beginning of the road for Team Sweden, who has Slovakia on Friday before facing Finland on Sunday. The Swedes aren’t matched up in the same group as any of the typical hockey powerhouses — Team USA, Team Canada, and ROC — but that doesn’t mean they can sleepwalk through the preliminary rounds, because the mistakes made against Latvia simply won’t fly against the aforementioned juggernauts.
In order to make their way back to the podium for the first time since 2014, not to mention potentially win their first gold medal since 2006, Sweden needs to cut down on its penalties, play shut-down defense when they are on the penalty kill, and capitalize on their chances with the man advantage.
There’s no rest for the weary, as their next test comes against Slovakia on Friday morning, their second game in as many days. Puck drop is scheduled for 3:40 am ET.