TORONTO — Sweden’s unparalleled defensive corps was on full display Sunday, holding the high-powered Russians without a goal for more than 59 minutes in a 2-1 victory over Russia, despite the absence of star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was out with an illness. The Swedish blue line is a who’s-who of NHL stars, featuring Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Mattias Ekholm, and Anton Stralman.
Then there’s Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has far less sizzle to his game, but who has earned just as much respect in the hockey world. While Karlsson, Hedman and Ekman-Larsson are going to light up the scoreboard, Hjalmarsson will keep the other guys off of it.
“You definitely have to talk about Hammer as a guy who means a ton to our team, but maybe doesn’t get celebrated for what he brings to our team because he’s not typically the most offensive defenseman,” said Jonathan Toews, Hjalmarsson’s teammate in Chicago but foe in Toronto. “But we know he’s going to be a big part of that team in Sweden, that for the most part, we expect him to be matched up against other teams’ top lines.”
There were more offensive defensemen available, such as Dallas’ John Klingberg, but Hjalmarsson is now a mainstay in the Swedish roster. And as for that impenetrable Swedish defense, Hjalmarsson appreciates the hype, but knows it won’t mean anything without a championship.
“It’s fun, but at the same time, it’s enough talk about that,” he said. “We have to show it on the ice. That’s what it all comes down to.”
Adapt and attack
The last time the comically loaded Canadians took on the world, they didn’t so much smoke opponents as smother them. Utilizing the wider international ice surface, Canada focused more on limiting scoring chances than creating them. It worked beautifully, as they steamrolled their way to the gold medal by a combined score of 17-3 in six games, including a 1-0 victory over the United States in the semifinals.
But in Saturday’s opener against the Czech Republic, Canada was on the attack in a 6-0 victory.
Jonathan Toews, who had a goal, chalked it up to the NHL-sized rink at Air Canada Centre.
“[It’s] the difference in the style of game on the ice sheet in Sochi compared to the NHL sheet here in Toronto,” Toews said. “You’re going to see way more offense right away. It’s almost a very neutral game when your’e in Europe, when you’re on that big Olympic-sized sheet. It’s tough to create offense, it’s tough to shoot from the right areas. It’s just a whole different animal.”
Marcus Kruger, who missed two of Sweden’s exhibitions with an injury, played 11:55 on Sunday. As for the wrist injury that cost him more than three months last season and still plagued him a bit when he returned in March, Kruger said it’s fine and is “not going to hold me back or anything,” but that it’ll always be in the back of his mind.
“Obviously, that was a serious injury, so I have to keep working with that, be careful with different stuff,” he said. “That’s going to be a while. It’s going to be probably a few more years of keeping an eye on it at least.”
Team North America, the 23-and-under group of United States and Canada “young guns,” blew past Finland in a 4-1 victory, displaying breathtaking speed and skill against the usually stout Finns.
The first goal of the game was Jack Eichel, last year’s No. 2 pick, from Auston Matthews, this year’s No. 1 pick, and Connor McDavid, last year’s No. 1 pick.
“It would never happen if this whole thing wasn’t put together,” McDavid said. “It was pretty cool to have it start that way.”
But McDavid still believes North America is an underdog, with Russia looming on Monday night.
“We’re playing the Russians tomorrow, who are absolute hockey giants,” he said. “It’s going to be a good test for us, but we’re excited about it.”
Teuvo Teravainen was a healthy scratch for Finland. Ville Pokka played 13:22.