Prior to the face-off between Team Sweden and Team Russia in the World Cup of Hockey, the biggest source of worry for Swedes had been the Russian offense, which on paper has been said to surpass the Swedish equivalent regarding star quality and skill. The worry didn’t ease off when it became known that Henrik Lundqvist would be unable to guard the net, due to illness (or if that explanation was just a cover up for an injury?), and that the rather untested Jacob Markström would take on the task instead.
Now the game has been played, Sweden won 2-1, and we ask ourselves: Why did we ever worry?
The Russian offense was completely neutralized by a close to perfect Swedish defensive performance, and Jacob Markström with 27 saves stepped up for the challenge in a sort of scripted way. It may sound exaggerated, but Markström played a game that could prove to be the turning point of his career. It all depends, however, on the coaching staff’s decision for the next game versus Team Finland. More on that topic further down.
Before I begin to discuss the matter of the goalkeeper dilemma, I want to shed light on the strategy and player performances that made Sweden beat Russia in such a confident way.
No More ‘Chicken Swedes’
If you saw the game, you know that Sweden’s victory came from a team effort more than anything else. The Swedes did the work for each other, guided by a clear strategy from coach Rickard Grönborg. By doing so, the individualistic superstars on the Russian side fell short in reaching their own full potential. I mean, Evgeni Malkin was invisible for the whole game, Pavel Datsyuk as well, and Alex Ovechkin had no say in the matter until there were only two minutes left.
Instead, the truly dominant figures on the ice were players such as Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Carl Söderberg and Patric Hörnqvist. Each player killed the outdated myth of “the Chicken Swedes,” which has lasted over the years as a reference to the non-physical Swedish players that first entered the NHL.
And Hedman, may I add, played his best game ever in the yellow-blue jersey. He indicated once again that he will be a real contender for the Norris Trophy this upcoming NHL season.
Finns Forced to Win
In spite of Sweden’s impressive premiere exploit versus Russia, there are of course things to improve. And things to bear in mind going forward in the tournament.
Up against Finland, a completely different kind of hockey game awaits. Finland is a more similar team to Sweden than Russia is, while the star power is less refulgent in both the offensive and defensive constellations. This will cause for Sweden to take control of the events, and, unlike in the Russia game, dictate how fast the tempo will be rather than how slow it will be. In that sense, the offensive side of Sweden still needs improvement.
Even though it looked better against Russia than in the pre-tournament games, the fact remains that Sweden rarely has been able to put the puck in the net.
Sweden needs to find more variety in the offense. However, it’s important that the defensive game does not suffer from it. After all, the old expression that “offense wins games and defense wins championships” is somewhat accurate. And when facing these Finns that must win, after losing against Team North-America, the one team that must score will be the opposition. Not Sweden.
Lundqvist or Markström?
Perhaps this question is the most important yet the most difficult one that Grönborg and his staff will need to answer before the next game. And most people have already admitted being divided in their opinions. Should Jacob Markström, after his phenomenal performance against Russia, continue to start as a goalie for Sweden in the World Cup? Or should Henrik Lundqvist, given that he will be healthy, return as a first choice in the net?
There’s really no simple answer to this. On the one hand, Markström has the advantage of having one foot in the tournament already and also having proved that he is in a great form at the moment. On the other hand, when Lundqvist reaches his highest level of performance, he is arguably the best goalie on the planet.
This dilemma could be compared to the one that Pittsburgh Penguins faced in the beginning of the Stanley Cup playoffs earlier this year. The pronounced first choice of Marc-André Fleury was injured and in his place, Matt Murray ended up playing a championship-winning role. When Fleury was recovered from his injury, he didn’t reach up to the quality that Murray had inherited in Fleury’s absence.
So what would be my call? Well, even though it feels incredibly wrong to sideline a goalie of Henrik Lundqvist’s caliber, I think that Markström from now on is the right man for Team Sweden in the World Cup of Hockey. He is ‘the Next One’ after Lundqvist, and it’s possible that we are at the point in history where that transition is taking place.