MONTREAL — It is somewhat appropriate that a trio of crowns make up Sweden’s logo at the world junior championship.
After all, the Tre Kronor has so far looked like the undisputed king’s of this year’s tournament. Well, at least for now.
Following another sweep of the round robin — Sweden has won 40 straight group games, dating back to 2006 — the Scandinavian nation defeated Slovakia 8-3 in a quarterfinal match on Monday.
It was yet another one-sided win for a team that has outscored its opponents 26-9, and barely broke a sweat in doing so. And yet, no one is getting ahead of themselves.
In both the 2015 and 2016 world juniors, Sweden went undefeated through the first five games, only to go home without a medal. With a semifinal meeting with Canada, the players understand that the biggest challenge still lies in front of them.
“That’s the test,” said forward Rasmus Asplund. “That’s the game we need to win if we’re going to be in the gold-medal game.”
“I remember the feeling last year,” captain Joel Eriksson Ek said of losing 2-1 to Finland in last year’s semi. “I don’t want to have that feeling again. I hope we can step up a little bit more and win the hockey game.”
As good as Sweden has been, you could argue that the team has yet to be tested.
While Canada had to play Russia and the United States in Group B’s preliminary round, Sweden fed on weaker countries such as Denmark, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. Even the game against defending champion Finland, which is now playing in the relegation round, was a breeze.
Still, the Swedes have been impressive. In some ways, they have made it look easy, with blowout wins against the Danes (6-1), Czechs (5-2) and Slovaks (8-3).
Led by Alexander Nylander, who has five goals and leads the tournament with 11 points, Joel Eriksson Ek (five goals and seven points) and Asplund (one goal and seven points), Sweden has four balanced lines that can score. They also have an older and more experienced defence corps, as well as a sharp goaltender in Felix Sandstrom (.939 save percentage and 1.33 goals-against average).
“I think we have four good lines working hard for each other. I think that’s the biggest key,” said Eriksson Ek, who believes the Swedes have been tested more than it might seem. “We’ve had some tough games. (Monday), we let them score three in a row against us. Switzerland was a tough game too. We were 2-2 at the end of the third. So we’ve been tested, but for sure the game’s going to be tougher.”
Against Slovakia, who also lost 6-0 to Canada in the round robin, Sweden was just too much.
Eriksson Ek, who recorded five points in nine games with the Minnesota Wild this season before returning to Sweden, opened the scoring with his first of two goals 68 seconds into the first period. Sweden kept piling on the offence, taking a 5-0 lead in the second period. And while Slovakia provided a minor scare with three straight goals to make it 5-3, Sweden flipped the switch and put the game well out of reach in the third period.
“This one was harder,” Slovakia goalie Adam Huska said of comparing Canada versus Sweden. “They are really good. They play really fast. Very hard to play against.”
Nylander, who had a goal and an assist against Slovakia, was far more diplomatic: “I just think that we’ve been playing good and I think we can step it up a notch too.”
Indeed, no one was foolish enough to suggest that Canada, which lost 3-1 to the United States on Boxing Day, is the underdog. But one player suggested that Canada might have more on the line, considering where the game is being played.
“I think so, yeah,” said Sandstrom. “They have the crowd to play for. We have some fans here too, but I think they have more pressure on them. We’re a good team and we’re really good at scoring. We will be prepared for that team.”