After an early upset at the hands of the Czech Republic, Sweden has gotten down to business at the 2019 World Hockey Championship. They’ve easily dispatched the lower tier of teams — Italy, Norway, and Austria — then got past Switzerland in a close game over the weekend.
Against Latvia, however, Sweden looked vulnerable. They barely beat Latvia to ensure qualification to the quarterfinals.
Looking at their lineup, Sweden should be a powerhouse. They’re chock-full of NHL talent, including a strong blue line led by John Klingberg, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Adam Larsson, and Mattias Ekholm. At forward, they’ve got great young players like Elias Pettersson, William Nylander, Elias Lindholm, and Gabriel Landeskog.
Latvia, on the other hand, are almost entirely devoid of NHL talent. Last season, Rudolfs Balcers played 36 games for the Ottawa Senators, which barely counts as an NHL team, and Teodors Blugers played 28 for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That’s it.
When it comes to international tournaments, however, Latvia always seems to be more than the sum of their parts. A big part of that is their young goaltending: Kristers Gudlevsksis, who nearly eliminated Canada at the 2014 Olympics with 55 saves, and Elvis Merzlikins, who nearly eliminated Sweden at last year’s World Championship. Both teams went on to win gold after getting past Latvia.
Another big factor is Bob Hartley, the one-time Jack Adams winner that was hired by the Latvian Hockey Federation to revamp their program. Latvia is always well-prepared for international action and plays like a team, rather than just a collection of players thrown together a couple weeks before a tournament.
Latvia looked like a well-oiled machine; Sweden sometimes looked disorganized, particularly in the defensive zone.
Here was the situation for the two countries heading into this game. Sweden had 12 points, while Latvia had 9. A win in regulation for Latvia would move them into a tie with Sweden, with head-to-head results being the first tiebreaker. That would mean Sweden would have to get at least a point in their final game against Russia to get out of the preliminary round. The stakes were high.
Sweden got on the board first, thanks to a pair of Canucks. Loui Eriksson drew a penalty on Oskars Batna, who practically tackled the veteran forward.
On the subsequent power play, Pettersson took a pass from Landeskog in the PetterZone and ripped a wrist shot into the top corner over Gudlevskis’s glove. After the goal, Pettersson turned to the Latvian bench and gave them a cold death stare.
Why the death stare? Perhaps Latvia had some words for Pettersson prior to the game or during the first period. Perhaps Pettersson is just a big meanie. Hard to say. Alas, I’m not in Slovakia to ask him.
That was the only puck Sweden could get past Gudlevskis in the first period, as Latvia kept the game close. In the second period, Pettersson had an opportunity to put Sweden up 2-0 off a setup from Marcus Kruger, but put the puck through the crease from a tough angle.
That miss proved costly, as Latvia tied the game on the power play shortly after. After scoring, Roberts Bukarts skated past the Swedish bench and gave them a sharp look, seemingly in response to Pettersson’s death stare.
Sweden restored their lead before the end of the second with a goal from Adrian Kempe, but a wild third period nearly put them on the brink of elimination.
Latvia stunned Sweden with two quick goals in the first four minutes of the third period, taking their first lead of the game. The first of those was a bizarre one: an own goal off Eriksson.
On a Latvian power play, a puck got behind Lundqvist. Ekholm attempted to clear it out of danger, but the puck went improbably off both Eriksson’s shinpads and into the net. Bukarts got credit for the goal for his second of the game.
Sweden were in disbelief, but got themselves back together midway through the third to score two goals of their own in the space of a minute to take back the lead.
Then, the controversy. Bukarts scored a fantastic goal, driving to the front of the net and banging in his own rebound out of midair. After a review to see if it was knocked in with a high stick — it wasn’t — Sweden challenged the goal for offside.
With the extra time to watch the replay afforded by the high stick review, Sweden seemed sure that former Canuck Ronalds Kenins had entered the offensive zone ahead of the puck. The video review, however, was inconclusive: not only did the goal count, tying the game 4-4, but Sweden got a penalty for delay of game thanks to the unsuccessful coach’s challenge.
With just over three minutes left, that handed Latvia a golden opportunity to win in regulation and put Sweden in a supremely uncomfortable spot.
“Det är idiotiskt,” said former-NHLer and current Swedish hockey commentator Mikael Renberg of the decision to challenge for offside. As you might guess, that translates to, “It’s idiotic.”
If the game remained tied 4-4 — a likely result with the game at even-strength — then Sweden would secure their spot in the quarterfinal. With the video replay so inconclusive, taking the risk of giving Latvia a power play might not have been the smartest move.
Halfway through the power play, Latvia made the clever move of switching out their goaltenders: the time taken for the goaltending change gave Latvia the equivalent of a timeout to rest their top power play unit. Shortly after, they pulled Merzlikins for the extra attacker anyway.
The empty net, however, gave Sweden the chance to end the game in regulation themselves: Dennis Rasmussen, who played all of 9:44 in this game, sent a puck into the empty net from his own zone for the 5-4 win.
It was a rollercoaster of a game, but it ended with Sweden securely in the quarterfinals. Perhaps the close call against Latvia will be just the wakeup call they need as they pursue their third-straight gold medal.
Other Canucks at the World Championships
Canada/USA vs Germany
Over the weekend, Germany got beat up by Canada and USA. First Germany got crushed by Canada 8-1, then kept things a little closer against Team USA in a 3-1 loss. Germany, however, is in good shape: they’re three points up on Slovakia heading into their final games and own the tiebreaker against Slovakia after beating them 3-2 earlier in the tournament.
The Canucks involved in those games were largely kept quiet. Troy Stecher saw a little less ice time with the return of Dante Fabbro from injury, playing 13:31 after some games over 20 minutes.
Quinn Hughes played 17:21 against Germany, but is averaging 20:37 per game for the tournament. He has three points, all assists, through six games.
USA and Canada have comfortably qualified for the quarterfinals. Canada is currently up by several goals against Denmark, which will move them into second in Group A over USA: Stecher and Hughes will face each other in the final game of the preliminary round to determine seeding heading into the elimination games.
Great Britain vs France
No Canucks here, but this was still a fantastic, entertaining game. The two teams were playing not for qualification to the quarterfinals, but to avoid relegation and stay in the top division. The high stakes led to an incredible, hard-fought game.
France took a 3-0 lead halfway through the second period with three goals scored in a four-minute span, and seemed to have the game well in hand.
Great Britain refused to give up, however, and responded with two goals before the end of the second period. Ben O’Connor picked off an outlet pass just inside the French blue line and set up Robert Dowd alone in front: he deked to the backhand for a pretty finish past French goaltender Florian Hardy to make it 3-1.
Then a rebound popped out to Mike Hammond at the side of the net to make it 3-2. Game on.
Five minutes into the third period, Robert Farmer spun off his check in the corner and drove to the net, tucking the puck under the bar on the short side. That tied the game 3-3 and sent it to overtime, with the next goal determining who stayed in the top division and who got relegated.
In overtime, British goaltender Ben Bowns, who has been the story of the tournament for his team, put in a heroic effort to stave off the French, making a series of saves in the crease, stacking his pads to keep the puck out.
That gave great Britain a chance and they took advantage of it. It was a set play off a defensive zone faceoff: Ben Davies surprised everyone by going forward off the faceoff, sending the puck out into the neutral zone, where British captain Jonathan Phillips skated onto it. Phillips was knocked down, but scrambled back to his feet and found Davies, who followed up the play after the faceoff. Alone in front, Davies made no mistake, cutting to his backhand and roofing the puck.
The Brits in the crowd went wild. The Brits on the ice went wild. It was a stunning, emotional moment.
Two years ago, Britain was in Division IIB. They won that tournament to promote to Division IIA, then won that tournament to get to the top division this year. It was their first time in the top division since 1994 and now they’ll stay there another year. It’s an incredible accomplishment for Great Britain.
Meanwhile, it’s an incredible disappointment for France, who will be relegated for the first time since 2007. They had a tough tournament, particularly since they were missing one of their top players, Canucks forward Antoine Roussel, who suffered a season-ending knee injury back in March.