Coming into the Olympic tournament, you could hardly find a prediction that didn't peg Sweden on the medal stand. The last time the Olympics were held on the international ice and outside of North America, Sweden won gold. With the roster it brought to Sochi, there was no reason to think the Swedes can't do it again.
Their opening game against the Czech Republic on Wednesday, a 4-2 win, did very little to change that opinion.
While Sweden did not completely dominate play against the Czechs, the Swrdes showed what can make them so dangerous. In the opening period they really set the tone for the game as they built a two-goal lead. What was working so well for them was the dynamic defensive duo of Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
The two defensemen appeared to complement each other so well. Both possess so much speed, and together they made the breakouts easy and commanded the offense well at the points. Together they were brilliant.
Perhaps no point in the game demonstrated this pair's excellence better than when Sweden scored the first goal of the game. It didn't start perfectly as Karlsson got in trouble near his own net but he was tripped on the play, causing a delayed penalty. Sweden kept control of the puck, allowing Henrik Lundqvist to get to the bench for the extra skater.
What ensued was a tremendous display of puck possession from Sweden, transitioning up the ice with relative ease from the back end and then was able to play keep away from the Czechs to maintain a 6-on-5 advantage. After the defensemen helped cycle, it ended up making its way back to Karlsson from the point. Doing what he does so well, he fired the shot and managed to sneak it through traffic.
Originally the goal was credited to Daniel Alfredsson on a deflection, but upon further review it was Karlsson's. Of course it was assisted by Ekman-Larsson. Karlsson would add another goal later and Ekman-Larsson an assist. Between the two of them they had half the team's goals and more than 1/3 of the points. That will help ease the burden of the scoring on a group that does have at least some questions.
Of course, they aren't the only defensemen the Swedes have. The robust group also includes Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Kronwall, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. What you might notice is that there is some built-in chemistry there with Ericsson and Kronwall being teammates in Detroit while Hjalmarsson and Oduya both play in Chicago. Ekman-Larsson and Karlsson don't have that same built-in connection but it didn't show in the early going.
The Swedes perhaps took their foot off the gas a little bit as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead thanks also to goals from Henrik Zetterberg and Patrik Berglund to chase Czech starter Jakub Kovar. But even before that they weren't completely dominating play. In the end the shot differential favored the Czechs 29-25, but that was a product of them playing from behind. While they weren't getting a vast majority of the shots when the game was close, they were getting the vast majority of the actual scoring chances. The driving force of that was the back end.
Was it a perfect opener for Sweden? No. As great as he was in the first period, Ekman-Larsson wasn't spectacular the latter half when the Czechs battled back into the game with goals from Marek Zidlicky and Jaromir Jagr. No doubt they can be better, both the team and the defensive pairing. Maybe a little more time will help solidify them on both ends of the ice and if so, watch out because with them driving offensive possession and being as aggressive as they both tend to be, they add a dimension a lot of teams will have trouble with.
Looking at their group, there's no reason to think the Swedes shouldn't cruise through rather comfortably to the next round after seeing Switzerland going scoreless for 59 minutes and 52 seconds against Latvia. And especially after seeing what their defensive group is capable of.