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Friday, February 14, 2014
Sweden bounces back from bad news

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- Life after Henrik (times two) began for Sweden with a nail-biting 1-0 win over Switzerland on Friday, the perennial powerhouse trying to forge on with a depleted lineup that cannot sustain another injury up front at this point.

If coming to Sochi without Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen wasn't enough of a body blow, losing captain Henrik Zetterberg is potentially the knockout punch in terms of Sweden trying to bring home the gold. And the most important Henrik on the team didn't hide his feelings in the wake of Friday's news that Zetterberg is out of the Olympics because of a herniated disc in his back.

"It's a tough break for the whole team," star netminder Henrik Lundqvist said after a 26-save shutout of the Swiss. "He's our leader, our captain and one of our best players. To replace him is going to be impossible. I just feel my energy went down when I heard the news, but we have to regroup and realize we have guys who are here and we have to pull even harder. But it's definitely a tough break."

Perhaps Lundqvist felt his energy drained when he heard the Zetterberg news because he immediately knew what it meant: More than ever, Sweden's gold-medal chances will ride on Lundqvist's all-world goaltending.

And he was the biggest factor in the opening period Friday, making a number of heart-stopping saves as the Swiss came out flying with a 13-5 advantage in shots on goal. Sweden was fortunate to still be tied 0-0 after 20 minutes.

Daniel Alfredsson
Veteran Daniel Alfredsson provided what the Swedes needed to overcome adversity.
Lundqvist's stellar netminding allowed his team to regroup and bring the game back, the Swedes pushing the pace for the final 40 minutes and getting the three points on Daniel Alfredsson's goal with 7:21 to go in the third period. Who else, right?

On a day in which Jaromir Jagr (who turns 42 on Saturday) scored his second goal of the tournament for the Czech Republic, it was 41-year-old Alfredsson who provided the clutch game winner for Sweden, putting in a rebound. It wasn't pretty, but it was his effort to fight through coverage that allowed him to be in a position to get the tap-in.

Alfredsson said the players spoke as a group in the morning to deal with the Zetterberg news. They needed to get in the right mindset to play a big game against a Switzerland team that continues to climb up the ladder in international hockey.

"It's a tough loss," Alfredsson said of Zetterberg. "We had a few of those before the Olympics, as well. It is just like anything; you deal with it and move on. We're going to be thinking about Henrik for the rest of tournament. He'll be with us. We're going to move forward. We have good depth on our team, and [Patrik] Berglund stepping up is going to play a big role for us going forward.

"Nothing changes as far as our goals or what we want to accomplish."

Berglund moved up to replace Zetterberg on the top line between Gabriel Landeskog and Alexander Steen. Just don't use the word "replace" when you ask Berglund about it.

"Well, I can't fill his shoes at all, that's for sure," said the St. Louis Blues center. "But I'm going to work hard and just do my best. Obviously, it's nice to come out with the win tonight. We're all very sad that Zetterberg is not with us."

Missing those three key players -- and especially losing a core star such as Zetterberg one game into the Olympics -- is incredibly difficult, but it's also the kind of thing that can galvanize a dressing room. Most gold-medal teams look back and point to a moment of adversity that helped crystallize the path to glory.

What a story it would be, right? To still win it all despite the losses of Zetterberg, H. Sedin and Franzen?

"Yeah, absolutely, it doesn't change our goal at all," said Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom. "We're going for the gold. Even with or without a couple of players, we have the same mindset."

Meanwhile, on the Swiss side, it was a tough loss and perhaps an unjust result. At the very least, Switzerland played well enough to deserve a point from extra time, but, with just one goal in two games in this tournament, it's not hard to see where the improvement must come from.

"We got to do something to get the offense going," agreed Swiss winger Damien Brunner of the New Jersey Devils. "I thought we created enough chances today but need a bounce or two."

From my seat at Bolshoy Ice Dome on Friday, I saw a Swiss side that skates as well as any other top country in this tournament, a well-coached team by Sean Simpson that plays a very disciplined game in its own end.

"I think Switzerland is going to surprise a lot of people," said Swedish star Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks.

"They're a great team," Backstrom echoed. "What's to their advantage is that many of them stick together all year and they play in a couple of tournaments all year. They don't have a lot of NHL players. They really come together as a group, and they're a tough team to play against."

The Swedes beat Switzerland in the gold-medal game last spring at the IIHF world championship, and it's that silver medal for the Swiss that has raised hopes among their fans of what they can accomplish here in Sochi.

"Maybe the expectations back home are high, but people got to realize it's a totally different tournament here; I mean, you play against the very best players in the world," Brunner said. "That was a good hockey game today, but unfortunately we couldn't score."

Still, this is a Swiss team that plays as if it belongs with the big boys.

"We have a lot of confidence," said Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi. "We didn't win that game, but it gave us some confidence we can play with the big teams. But we have to play like that for whole 60 minutes."

Over the past decade, Swiss hockey has evolved importantly.

"The mindset of all the young players growing up has changed a little bit in Switzerland," Brunner said. "They want to make the NHL now. It used to be that the goal was just playing in Switzerland in the A league, and maybe for the national team, now it's to go to North America and play in the NHL."

Don't sleep on Switzerland, folks. You just get the feeling the Swiss are going to jump up and bite one of the big teams in this tournament.