SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 12: Erik Karlsson #65 of Sweden celebrates with teammate Oliver Ekman Larsson #3 after scoring a goal in the first period against Jakub Kovar #1 of Czech Republic during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group C game on day five of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The men’s hockey tournament at the Sochi Olympics got off to a rollicking start on Wednesday, with Sweden winning their Pool C opener over the Czech Republic, while Switzerland scored with seven seconds left to beat Latvia in a 1-0 thriller.
We’ll get to how the Blackhawks did in their first games in Sochi, but for now, here are our Three Stars of the day in men’s hockey.
Third Star: Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Sweden)
The Phoenix Coyotes defenseman got his Olympics off to a great start, as he picked up two key assists in the first period as the Swedes jumped out to an early lead in their tournament opener.
The first assist came on a delayed penalty. The Swedish team moved the puck around the zone with impunity as the Czechs tried to stop their puck cycle to no avail. Finally, Ekman-Larsson grabbed the puck at the point, held it for a brief moment, slung the puck over to Erik Karlsson, and the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman from the Ottawa Senators didn’t miss in making it 1-0.
Ekman-Larsson made another great play later in the period when he got a pass from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. On the play, OEL carried the puck through the neutral zone, where he found Patrik Berglund skating near the blue line. Berglund then carried the puck around the Czech defender and beat Jakub Kovar short side for a 2-0 lead.
It was an excellent first game in the tournament for Ekman-Larsson, who is a key part of the Swedish attack because of his excellent puck-handling and tremendous speed on defense. If he can continue to play like he did in this one, then he is going to be a difficult player for any team to stop.
Second Star: Erik Karlsson (Sweden)
Naturally, Karlsson’s two goals were a huge factor in the Swedish victory, but it was the way he scored both of them that was notable.
On the first goal, Karlsson was at the point during a delayed penalty, and he took advantage of some great traffic in front of the net courtesy of Daniel Alfredsson, and the shot evaded Kovar to give the Swedes the early lead.
In the second period, Karlsson struck again as he once again was active at the point during a Swedish power play. Using some excellent passing from Daniel Sedin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Swedes were able to get the Czech defense moving, and Karlsson took full advantage of the confusion as he rifled in a shot past Alexander Salak to push the lead to 4-0.
Karlsson gets knocked a lot for his defensive deficiencies, but when it comes to taking advantage of openings on the power play, there are few better than the Senators defenseman in the game.
First Star: Edgars Masalskis (Latvia)
No, Masalskis was not able to end Latvia’s losing streak against top-8 Olympic opponents (the Latvians are now 0-9-2 in 11 games against those teams), but he made it a lot closer than it should have been in a narrow loss.
In the game, the Latvians committed five different penalties, but Masalskis played a key role in making sure that Switzerland couldn’t take advantage of any of them. The most important one of all came in the late stages of the third period, as the goaltender made several key saves, including one with his shoulder that caused him to wince in understandable pain.
Overall in the game, Masalskis made 37 saves, but he only ended up being beaten on the final shot of the game because Simon Moser’s pass from behind the net towards Nino Niederreiter ended up deflecting off of one of the goaltender’s own defensemen, and he couldn’t quite get over to the far post to stop the deflection.
All in all, it was a tremendous effort against an incredibly fast Swiss team, and Masalskis has nothing to be ashamed of for his part in the contest.