Looking energetic and determined, Sweden kicked off its World Junior title defence with a hard-working 4-1 win over the Czech Republic at Ufa’s Sports Palace.
"I liked the way we competed," said Swedish coach Roger Ronnberg. "I liked our PK, the way we were blocking shots, and the way we played without the puck, how we came back on the backcheck. It was good. Offensively, we can for sure still play better."
Swedish goaltender Joel Lassinantti emerged victorious as the 19-year-old Luleå HF goalie made his World U20 debut head-to-head against the Czech Republic’s Matej Machovsky.
There are still some kinks for the defending champs to work out, though. Case in point: they were twice penalized for too many players on the ice.
"I think it was a typical first-game-of-the-tournament thing," said Ronnberg. "The players want so much to be on the ice, and they don’t maybe pay attention at the right time."
Tre Kronor is missing plenty of potential key players, including 2012 golden goal-scorer Mika Zibanejad (not released by the AHL’s Binghamton Senators) and defencemen Oscar Klefbom, Jonas Brodin, and Jesper Pettersson (injuries).
However, those absences didn’t stop Sweden in the opener. Underrated Mora blueliner Mikael Vikstrand is already emerging as a potential power play quarterback for Ronnberg, notching two assists with the man advantage against the Czechs.
"It was a pretty good win," said Forsberg. "We started well with two power play goals, and then we took some bad penalties and the Czechs came back into the game. But in the second and third period, we managed to close out the game."
The Swedes wasted no time on an early 5-on-3 power play, taking just eight seconds to capitalize in that situation. On a lovely tic-tac-toe play, Vikstrand sent the puck to Emil Molin, who fed it cross-ice for Collberg to one-time it home from the left faceoff circle at 2:16.
At 3:48, Vikstrand stepped in from the center point and let a screened shot fly that Lindholm deflected in for a 2-0 lead.
"We started very badly," said Czech coach Miroslav Prerost. "In the first three or four minutes, the goals scored by the Swedish team decided the game."
The Czechs couldn’t counterattack in their traditional style due to Sweden’s disciplined play in the defensive zone.
Even when the Swedes ran into penalty trouble in the second period, it didn’t hurt them. At 3:03, with Tre Kronor playing shorthanded, Sandberg burst through the Czech defence and barely squeezed a backhand deke past Machovsky to make it 3-0.
Near the five-minute mark of the second, Swedish assistant captain Rickard Rakell hobbled off after taking a knee from Czech forward Dmitrij Jaskin, but would return to action.
Filip Forsberg nearly dipsy-doodled his way to a goal with just over two minutes left in the middle frame. Although the Swedish captain was denied by Machovsky, he did get Czech defenceman David Musil to take a slashing penalty – Musil’s third minor of the evening.
The Czechs thought they might have gotten on the board with an early third-period power play goal after storming Lassinantti's crease, but it was ruled no good after the officials reviewed it.
Forsberg circled the Czech net and scored with a nifty high shot to make it 4-0 with 7:53 remaining.
Lassinanti's shutout bid was spoiled by Czech captain Lukas Sedlak with six seconds left.
The Czech Republic hasn’t defeated Sweden at the World Juniors in nearly 10 years. Their last victory was a 3-1 decision on December 31, 2002 in Halifax, Canada. It’s reflective of the recent decline of the Czechs at this level. Despite some hopeful signs, their last medal was a bronze in 2005.
The Swiss team watched this game from one corner of Ufa’s Sports Palace. Sweden’s next opponent is Switzerland on Friday, while the Czechs face the Finns that day.
"I expect the Swiss to play harder and maybe have more grit than the Czechs tonight," said Ronnberg. "They have a very good Canadian coach [in Sean Simpson]. I know they’re a well-coached team, and we’ll have to play better than today to win."
"We’re not going to change our approach in the next game," said Prerost of facing Finland. "What we can change is the score. We believe we can be better."
I expect the Swiss to play harder and maybe have more grit than the Czechs tonight. They have a very good Canadian coach [in Sean Simpson]. I know they’re a well-coached team, and we’ll have to play better than today to win.
(Nathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)