Commentary

Will Sweden find its mojo early?

Czechs not as strong as in the past, but still a dangerous opponent

Updated: February 11, 2014, 1:57 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- Sweden and the Czech Republic clash Wednesday on the opening day of the men's Olympic hockey tournament in a doozy of a preliminary round game.

"It's going to be fun, obviously the Czechs are always a good team, always one of the teams that can go the whole way," star Swedish defenseman Niklas Kronwall said after practice Tuesday. "They're very structured defensively in the neutral zone and feed off their transition when they get the puck.''

The reality is that the Czechs, who have been an international force, especially during the late 1990s and early 2000s era, are actually a team on the decline, no longer producing as many high-end stars as they once did.

They've still got some bite, though, led by Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Plekanec. And they catch one of the tournament's gold-medal favorites, Sweden, at the perfect time, right at the start of the tournament when powerhouse teams sometimes take a while to find their mojo.

So it could certainly make for an entertaining start to the tournament, while Latvia and Switzerland play in the only other game Wednesday.

[+] EnlargeHenrik Sedin
AP Photo/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques BoissinotThere's no celebrating the loss of Henrik Sedin, but the Swedes feel they can overcome it.
For Sweden, the question is whether the injury losses of Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen took too big a bite out of their talented lineup. That's up for debate.

"That's just the way it is, there are other teams that have injuries as well, we can't feel sorry for ourselves," Kronwall said of losing Sedin and Franzen. "Of course, they are two big pieces of our team. But other guys will step up and take advantage of the ice time given to them. I don't think it's going to be a problem.''

Daniel Sedin forges on without his twin brother Henrik, on Tuesday skating on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Loui Eriksson.

"I get a chance to play with Backstrom now and he's very similar to Henrik. It should be an easy transition,'' Daniel said. "They [both] like to keep the puck and move it up, so I think it will work very well. He is an incredible passer and a smart player, so it's going to be fun.''

Still, not having his brother here -- the two shared Olympic glory in 2006 at Torino -- is not easy.

"It is sad for him, but that's just how it is,'' Daniel said. "He has never been injured, so this is definitely the longest I've played without him.''

The Swedes are a gold-medal contender once again for a reason: They're stacked. The other forward lines Tuesday at practice:

Most notable Tuesday was seeing Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson together on the top defense pairing for Sweden. Is there enough puck to go around there?

"We're both pretty skilled players and great skaters. I think it's going to be no real issue playing both ends of the ice," Karlsson said. "He's one of those types of players I enjoy playing with and I think he feels the same. We're moving the puck well and I see no real issues with anything whether it's the defensive zone or the offensive zone."

The other D pairs had Kronwall with Red Wings pal Jonathan Ericsson, and Blackhawks teammates Niklas Hjalmarsson with Johnny Oduya teaming up. Canucks blueliner Alexander Edler is suspended for the first two games of the tournament, a continuation of his suspension from the world championships last spring when he took out Eric Staal with a knee-on-knee hit.

As always, Swedish fans and media are clamoring for their team to bring home the gold like in 2006.

"I don't think players talk about that too much what the media says about pressure," Zetterberg said Tuesday. "We know we're one of the teams that can win the gold here but there are other teams who can. You have to play well when it matters the most, you have to be a little lucky and you have to be healthy.''

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