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SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 21: (L-R) Niklas Hjalmarsson #4, Johnny Oduya #27 and Henrik Lundqvist #30 of Sweden celebrate after defeating Finland 2-1 during the Men's Ice Hockey Semifinal Playoff on Day 14 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 21, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
In the NHL era of Olympic competition, two teams have consistently been at or near the top of the sport of hockey, and those two squads will compete on Sunday in Sochi for the gold medal on the world stage.
The two teams, Canada and Sweden, have taken different routes into Sunday’s tilt. For the Canadians, the question has been one of chemistry, with head coach Mike Babcock seemingly running out all sorts of different line combinations in an effort to find a consistent offensive attack. His defense has stepped up in an incredible way throughout the tournament as well, only allowing four goals in five Olympic games.
As for the Swedes, they are dealing with injuries that could have easily felled a less talented roster. They are without their captain, as Henrik Zetterberg was sent home with a herniated disc, and they have also had to play without Henrik Sedin up the middle, severely gutting their depth at the center position and rendering their gold medal hopes dead in the eyes of some.
Fortunately for them, they have gotten some big performances when it has mattered the most. Guys like Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson have been huge for Sweden, and their blue line corps is arguably the best in Sochi, with youngsters like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and savvy veterans like Niklas Kronwall and Niklas Hjalmarsson playing some of their best hockey.
On Sunday, these two competing narratives will go head to head as the two teams battle for the bragging rights as the best nation of the NHL era. Since professional players began competing in the Olympics in Nagano in 1998, the Swedes have won one gold medal in Torino in 2006, while Canada has picked up two of its own, in Salt Lake City and in Vancouver.
The two teams are both loaded with talent, but there are several elements of the game that could determine the winner when the final horn sounds at these Olympics. For the Canadians, the biggest key will be to stay out of the penalty box. Sweden’s power play has been diabolical in this tournament, and with talented offensive players like Karlsson at the point and guys like Nicklas Backstrom moving the puck around the zone, the Swedes will make Canada pay if they are undisciplined in this contest.
Canada will also need to continue the suffocating board play and neutral zone defensive prowess that they displayed against a high-powered American offense in Friday’s semi-final victory. Throughout that contest, the U.S. squad was flummoxed as they attempted to gain zone entry against the Canadians, as the Maple Leaf-clad squad from the Great White North bodied the Americans off the puck and got things going the other way in quick transition.
For the Swedes, the key will be to try to accomplish what the Americans failed to do, and that’s to beat the neutral zone quagmire that the Canadians will surely try to deploy again. Naturally that is easier said than done, but with the great blue line talent that the Swedes have, engaging the transition offense could be their biggest key to knocking off Canada, and it will be something they will have to execute well in order to have a chance to win.
In addition to that, Sweden will also have to continue to get excellent play out of Henrik Lundqvist. During what has been a poor NHL season for the New York Rangers goaltender, there have been some questions about whether or not his best days were behind him. During his Olympic run for Sweden, Lundqvist has played some of the best hockey of his life, and he will be in for his biggest challenge of the tournament against a high-powered Canadian offense that is capable of scoring off of any one of their four forward lines.
Whether it’s the combination of transition offense and quality goaltending for the Swedes, or locked down neutral zone defense and overall discipline for the Canadians, this game will hinge on a wide variety of factors. Seeing how all of those things end up shaking out when the puck drops on Sunday morning will be a fascinating sight to see, and fans of both teams should be in for a roller coaster ride as another edition of Olympic hockey concludes.