One leg of Olympic hockey is behind the Swedish National Team, and things couldn’t be going much better. With the first part of the tournament behind them, the Swedes are three victories away from winning gold for the second time since the 2006 games. After victories over the Czech Republic (4-2), Switzerland (1-0), and Latvia (5-3), Sweden is getting ready for their Quarterfinals match-up with the surprise of the men’s hockey tournament, Slovenia.
The Slovenian national team came in to the tournament with almost no expectations. They only have one NHL player on their roster (the Los Angeles Kings’ Center, Anze Kopitar), and they were considered the chum for the rest of Group A. The Slovenians played the Russians a lot closer than their 5-2 final score indicated, beat the disappointing Slovakians 3-1, and lost to the United States 5-1. This doesn’t look that impressive, but finishing eighth among the field is a big step for the Slovenian national team, since most thought they would finish eleventh or twelfth.
If the Slovenians are going to pull off the upset (Wed 2/19, 3AM Eastern time), they’ll need two things to happen. The first is for Goalie Robert Kristan to play the game of his life. If he can keep the Swedes to two goals or less, they’ll have a chance. The Swedes have had impressive stretches of hockey, but have yet to blow anyone out. The other thing the Slovenians will need to do is play a physical game. Sweden has already lost one major player in the tournament (Henrik Zetterberg is on his way back to Detroit to get evaluated by the Red Wings medical staff), and came in short two of their better players to start the Olympics (Johan Franzen and Henrik Sedin). If Kopitar and company can keep things close and physical heading in to the third period, they’ll have a chance.
As for the Tre Konor, the first thing they have to do is not get caught looking ahead. A victory in the Quarterfinals would have them facing the winner of Finland-Russia. Having the chance to beat your arch-rival or the host country en route to an opportunity to win gold would have any Swedish hockey player licking their chops. But Sweden is too good of a team for that, and Slovenia has played too well to be considered flying under the radar. The Swedes are the better team, so their keys to victory are simple: play your game, be patient on offense, and keep the crease clear for Henrik Lundqvist to do his job. The New York Rangers‘ goalie has proven that he’s a big-game goalie on both the NHL and International stage. If Sweden can limit the traffic in front of the net and play smart hockey, they’ll find themselves with a game in the semifinals on Friday.