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Lundqvist in net the constant that powers Sweden

Tuesday, 02.18.2014 / 8:18 AM
Corey Masisak  - NHL.com Staff Writer

SOCHI -- Near the end of Sweden's practice Tuesday, the team's goaltending coach was on the ice using an iPad to film a few drills involving New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Lundqvist said he doesn't normally see video of practices in New York, but it's a good way for him to monitor his net coverage and the angles at which he receives shot attempts with a couple of days between games.

The 2012 Vezina Trophy winner has had a strong start to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but like his teammates still is seeking improvements.

"I think we feel like we can do better, but at the same time we have all the points we wanted," Lundqvist said. "We are winning games. The most important thing in a tournament like this is to find ways to win even if you're not at your best. I hope we can continue to get better every game."

Sweden was the only team to earn nine points in the group stage, defeating the Czech Republic, Switzerland and Latvia in regulation en route to the top seed in the knockout rounds. The Swedes will face the upstarts from Slovenia in the quarterfinals Wednesday (3 a.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN).

Beyond a strong first period against the Czechs, it has been a workmanlike effort to this point for the Swedes. They managed one goal against Switzerland and did not blow anyone out like Canada or the United States did.

"I think we got the points, yeah, but we're not there yet," Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. "We want to be better. It will be a good test for us in the quarterfinals. It starts over now so everyone has to be spot-on now."

Captain Niklas Kronwall concurred: "I think we still have a lot to work on, but these two practices really feel like a step in the right direction."

While there has been plenty of focus on the lack of scoring by the Canadians or the struggles to win games by the Russians or the impressive nature of the Americans, Sweden has been something of a silent superpower in this tournament.

The Swedes looked great early against the Czechs, but otherwise there has been little of note for them beyond losing Henrik Zetterberg for the tournament with a back injury.

"We haven't had the big matchups yet," Lundqvist said. "That's why we haven't got a lot of attention. Russia-U.S. is going to get a lot of attention, and Finland-Canada was a great matchup. They're all good teams and they deserve that attention. We've done our job but we still have to improve to have a chance here.

Lundqvist has been sharp, particularly against an early onslaught from the Swiss. Switzerland carried the play in the first period against Sweden but Lundqvist kept the game scoreless until the team settled in and dominated the final 50 minutes or so.

He's the only goalie to start all three games in group play; in three games he's stopped 73 of 78 shots.

"He's been our best player," Backstrom said. "He gives us … we are calm when we have him back there. He's such a great goalie. But we need to play better defensively in front of him and offensively as well and help him out."

This season did not start the way Lundqvist wanted. He struggled and even watched his backup on the Rangers, Cam Talbot, earn multiple starts in a row at times. When healthy, that hadn't been the case for Lundqvist in many years.

He's always considered one of the strengths for the Swedes and a reason they're one of the favorites in any tournament he plays in. While the NHL season was unfolding, his inconsistent play gave pause to people who wanted to predict Sweden would win gold in Sochi.

Lundqvist gave up five goals on 28 shots Jan. 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it was three or fewer in the final 13 contests before the Olympics. He had an .888 save percentage in 10 December games but improved that number by 50 percentage points in January.

"I feel like I'm playing my game, both mentally and technically," Lundqvist said. "I feel like I'm where I need to be. Obviously it is more fun to play when you're winning and playing well. It is a big difference now."

When he is right Lundqvist is the anchor for the Rangers in the NHL and internationally for Sweden. He helped the Swedes win gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics, and Backstrom's Capitals know all too well of Lundqvist's exploits.

Lundqvist has beaten the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons and gave them fits while New York pushed second-seeded Washington to seven games in the opening round of the 2009 playoffs.

"I played against him four times in the playoffs and he's been incredible all four times," Backstrom said. "He's a great goalie. It is great to have him. I've said it for many years that he might be the best goalie in the world. That gives us some room to work with. We know our spots and that is something good I think."

All of the other top five seeds in this field have questions to a certain degree about the goaltending, and specifically who will play. Every day it is a story when the starting goalie for those teams is announced, while there is no news in this area with Sweden.

If Lundqvist is healthy and doesn't need a rest, he starts. The coaches of those other countries probably are a little jealous of Sweden's Par Marts. He's not losing any sleep trying to determine who the goaltender is.

"It's huge, there's no doubt about that," Kronwall said. "To be able to go far and deep in these tournaments, you need the best goalie. So far he's been unbelievable for us.

"I think other teams the guys are pretty comfortable with whoever is in net because that's how the good the goalies are these days. We're fortunate to have the best goalie in the world."

Even without Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen, the Swedes remain a contender for the gold medal. There is depth in the lineup and there is Lundqvist, and that just might be enough.

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