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Sweden tops Slovakia, earns shot at gold medal

Saturday, 01.03.2009 / 7:46 PM / 2009 World Junior Championship

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

OTTAWA -- Sitting in the locker room after the second period, trailing 2-1 to Slovakia, Sweden had to be seeing images of 24 hours earlier, when Slovakia upset the United States.

But while the U.S. never got its game straightened out, the Swedes found theirs just in time, scoring three times in a 4:38 span early in the third period en route to a 5-3 victory and a spot in the gold-medal game of the 2009 World Junior Championship.

Sweden will face Canada, a 6-5 shootout winner over Russia in the other semifinal game, in Monday's championship game (7:30 p.m. ET, NHL Network). Slovakia will play Russia in the bronze-medal game (3:30 p.m. ET, NHL Network).

To get to that gold-medal game, though, Sweden had to overcome another strong effort by Slovakia goalie Jaroslav Janus, who stopped 18 of 19 shots through two periods as Slovakia led 2-1 after 40 minutes.

It looked like a repeat of Friday night. Marek Mertel scored a power-play goal with four seconds left in the first period on a wrist shot from the right circle that somehow eluded the glove of Sweden goalie Jacob Markstrom -- much like Slovakia's first goal mysteriously got past U.S. goalie Thomas McCollum's glove.

Just like Friday, when Janus singlehandedly lifted his team past the U.S. in their 5-3 quarterfinal shocker, he was doing the same against Sweden.

And now they were getting the breaks -- an apparent goal by Sweden at the end of the second period was ruled to have crossed the line after the horn to end the period had sounded.

While some of his players were having the same nightmares the U.S. did, Sweden coach Par Marts worried more about keeping his team mentally focused than improving their play on the ice.

"We spoke about how it's time to show how good we are now," Marts said. "Rely on each other, don't do it yourself, play as a team, stay with the game plan and go for the win. And no bad thoughts. If you start to think bad thoughts about yourself, you're not going to win."

Mikael Backlund, whose second goal of the game 7:04 into third period tied the game 2-2 and started the Sweden onslaught, said he was one of those players having negative thoughts.

"I was scared for the third period," he said. "I said 'I don't want to go home now, I want to play in the finals.' We had good patience. We worked hard the whole game. If you work hard and play good, finally the bounces are going to come and they did."

They did for Backlund, and then 1:46 later, David Ullstrom drove to the net and toppled over Janus. Laying on his rear end, he used his stick blade like a pool cue to push the puck over the goal line.

That was all Backlund needed to see. He felt the game was in hand.

"It was a relief when we finally had the lead," he said. "It felt so good when we had the lead. When we scored to go up 3-2 I knew we were going to win. When we tied it we felt we had control of the game because we were better than them the whole game. We felt that if we get a lead we're going to win it."

Just 2:50 after Ullstrom's goal, Mattias Tedenby dug out a puck along the wall in Slovakia's end, deked his way around two defenseman and fed Simon Hjalmarsson at the right post for an easy stuff-in and a 4-2 lead.

"The third period, we stopped playing for like five minutes," said Janus, who finished with 46 saves on 50 shots. "It's very sad but we still have another game. Hopefully we'll get the bronze medal."

Playing for their tournament lives for the third straight game finally caught up to Slovakia.

"We got kind of tired in the third period," Janus said. "They had two days off. We were playing good for two periods, we were skating, I made some saves, we scored goals. In the third period, we weren't strong enough."

His coach, Stefan Mikes, agreed.

 
 


"In the third period our strength was slowing down, our speed," he said through an interpreter. "We got slow in the middle of the rink and we were losing the battles around the boards and in our end. We lost concentration in the third period and we couldn't manage to tie the game."

Tomas Tatar, the NHL Central Scouting's top-ranked Slovak skater for the 2009 Entry Draft, scored his second of the game and sixth of the tournament to get his team back within a goal with 4:02 left, but Oscar Moller scored into an empty net with 1:17 left for the final margin.

All the negative thoughts were gone, and it was time for Marts the coach to turn into Marts the teacher — and explain to his student-players how much they could learn from a game like this one.

"I think we learned a lot from this game," he said. "If you're favored, you play under pressure … you get tight (but) you learn something from it. I think it's really good for my guys not to leave the game plan, to have to do it together as a team, a unit. We weren't lucky because we should win this game, but it was a really hard one for us."

Rather than suffer the same nightmarish fate against Slovakia as the U.S. did, the young Swedes will go to sleep with a smile on their faces.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.




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