A couple of those first-time Olympians -- Johnny Oduya of Stockholm and Tobias Enstrom of Nordingra -- went head-to-head on Monday when Oduya's New Jersey Devils battled Enstrom's Atlanta Thrashers at Prudential Center.
In all, 10 players will be making their Olympic debuts for Team Sweden when the Games commence in February. For Oduya and Enstrom, who will team up on the blue line for the first time, it's an opportunity of a lifetime.
"It feels more of a bonus (making the Olympic Team); it's something where I really didn't know what to expect getting picked," Oduya said. "I'm happy and it'll be a tremendous experience -- something that a lot of guys don't have a chance to do."
Oduya and Enstrom know they must temper their excitement, however, while both their NHL teams continue to jockey for position in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
"It's one of those things where it's the middle of the year and you want to focus on what's going on now and how the team progresses," Oduya said. "First off, I want to play good and do good things here. Come February, it's time to have fun and go there with high hopes and expectations."
Despite missing 15 games with a lower-body injury earlier this season, Oduya returned to the lineup on Dec. 5 in dramatic fashion when he scored one off one of his signature end-to-end rushes in a victory over the Detroit Red Wings. He was one of five players in the lineup and the only defenseman to appear in all 82 regular-season games last season when he recorded career highs with 7 goals, 22 assists and 29 points.
"Team Sweden is a good team," Oduya said. "There's a lot of experience and some younger players thrown into the mix. On paper, I think Canada and Russia are the two strongest teams. I don't think too much pressure is being put on our shoulders -- it's been four years between tournaments and a lot of things change. Canada still has the biggest pressure. But nobody has anything to lose. You just go in and play -- nobody on the Swedish team feels that pressure."
Enstrom is Atlanta's all-time franchise leader in assists by a defenseman -- a mark he established in a little over two-plus seasons.
"Atlanta is my team and I'm always going to be there for them but it's great to be on the National Team and I'm looking forward to it," Enstrom said. "It's fun to be up there in assists, but, in the end, it's all about winning and any way I can help the team win, I'm doing it."
In 202 consecutive games, Enstrom has 87 assists and 100 points with the Thrashers. He and Oduya will both make fine quarterbacks with the man advantage for the Swedes.
"I always enjoy to pass the puck, so that's what I do," Enstrom, Atlanta's 2003 eighth-round draft pick, said. "It feels good to help the goal-scorers out. I don't know why I'm not a big shooter. The coach is picking on me to shoot the puck a bit more."
Oduya is looking forward to calling Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom his teammate for Team Sweden. Heck, he might even receive an opportunity to play alongside the future Hockey Hall of Famer.
"It'll be a first time for me," Oduya said. "He's one of the greatest players ever to play in Sweden so, for me, I look at him and it'll be something special. Hopefully, I'll learn a couple of things."
Devils goalie Martin Brodeur was happy to hear the news Oduya would be playing in his first Olympics.
"I think he's come a long way from being signed as a free agent (by the Devils in July 2006)," Brodeur said. "Being named to the National Team is pretty impressive, especially when you look at the talent they have in Sweden. For him to be in the top eight is something that he should be proud of."
"It feels more of a bonus (making the Olympic Team); it's something where I really didn't know what to expect getting picked. "I'm happy and it'll be a tremendous experience -- something that a lot of guys don't have a chance to do." -- Johnny Oduya
"The server broke down in the (Swedish Olympic) office and they couldn't send out any emails to notify anyone," Oduya said. "So I saw it on the Internet before I even heard from them."
Lemaire has shown plenty of confidence in Oduya, who is third on the team in average ice time (21:14) for players with 10 or more games under their belt. This, despite the fact he has just one goal and a plus-1 rating in 22 games this season.
"He's starting to play much better than he did at the start and you could see the talent he has," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said. "If he keeps growing up to that point, he'll be an important player. I feel it's great for him."
Atlanta coach John Anderson feels Enstrom, a key cog to his team's power-play, is as deserving as any player named to the squad.
"We're really proud of it just as we are any guy off our team that makes the Olympic Team," Anderson said. "When I played, professionals weren't allowed to play in the Olympics. Not that I would have gone, but it sure would have been nice to have that chance."
Contact Mike Morreale at: firstname.lastname@example.org.