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No longer soft, Sweden ready for Russia

Monday, 01.03.2011 / 10:27 AM / 2011 World Junior Championship

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

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No longer soft, Sweden ready for Russia
When Sweden was putting its team for the 2011 World Junior Championship together, the goal was to find players willing to play the way needed to win in North America. That goal appears to have been met.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The players representing the Swedish National Junior Team carefully were selected.
 
No longer is the Swedish federation solely interested in the having the quickest and most prolific point producers from the country on the roster. However, coach Roger Ronnberg, who has been one of the most outspoken coaches of the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship, believes he possess the best group of forwards in the tournament.
 
Can you blame him? After all, unbeaten Sweden enters Monday's semifinal-round clash with Russia (3:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, TSN) having outscored the opposition, 21-9. The team is gunning for its first WJC gold medal since 1981, when current defenseman Tim Erixon's father, Jan, played for the team.

The next step in that journey comes against Russia, which rallied from a 3-1 deficit to score a 4-3 overtime victory against Finland in a quarterfinal-round match Sunday, but which suffered a 2-0 setback to Sweden in preliminary-round action last Tuesday.
 
"I think we have the best forwards in this tournament because they're protecting the puck, are challenging the defensemen in the small areas and are good one-on-one," Ronnberg said. "We used that pretty good against Canada."
 
According to Ronnberg, there was a concerted effort in choosing several players capable of excelling on the smaller North American ice surface this year.
 
"The guys we picked for this team are good on the small ice," Ronnberg said. "We have prepared those guys from the camps and everything we've done for this tournament."
 
The 22-player Swedish roster averages 18.59 years of age.
 
"We don't have as many players as Canada to choose from and maybe we picked 15 guys from the Swedish leagues to play for our team, but the rest of the guys are the guys who can change the team's look," Ronnberg said. "They were chosen for the last spots and they are the ones who work well on the small ice. They like to battle, are strong skaters and they have the great attitude."
 
A few of the skaters who fit that mold are Max Friberg, Jesper Thornberg and Rickard Rakell, who plays for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. Another OHL player, the Kitchener Rangers' Gabriel Landeskog, also was supposed to be part of that group, but he's missed the last three games -- and likely won't play for the remainder of the tournament -- due to a severe ankle sprain.

"Those guys were all picked up late and have played one heck of a tournament," Ronnberg said. "This team looks for new challenges and loves to compete. We don't need to talk about mental toughness any more when faced against Canada or if we're in a sold-out arena. Four or five years ago, there was all this talk of Swedish players being a little soft, but no more."
 
Sweden captain Anton Lander, playing in his second WJC, can sense a different attitude in the locker room and on the bench.
 
"I think the difference between this team and years past is we work more together as a team," Lander said. "We're really strong together. We skate like heck and backcheck like heck. You have to trust each other. If my other linemates don't do that, he'll hear it from me. If I don't do it next shift, he'll come to me and say something. We have to block shots if you want to win the game and we have also gotten good goaltending."
 
It all adds up to one of the most dynamic Swedish teams to take the ice at a WJC. Sweden has won two silvers and a bronze, respectively, at the last three tournaments.
 
"We don't want to go here and be satisfied with a bronze medal … we're going for the gold," forward Patrick Cehlin told NHL.com. "It's a lot of hard work and many steps. We can't forget what took us here and that's hard work, everybody blocking shots and 100 percent backchecking."
 
Cehlin, who pulled Sweden into a 5-5 tie midway through the third period of the 6-5 shootout victory against Canada on the final day of preliminary-round play, has a team-leading 5 points and 19 shots on goal.
 

"This team looks for new challenges and loves to compete. We don't need to talk about mental toughness any more when faced against Canada or if we're in a sold-out arena. Four or five years ago, there was all this talk of Swedish players being a little soft, but no more."
-- Roger Ronnberg

"Russia has skilled players who are fast, so it'll be a hard game," he said. "The thing is, on our team, some guys have known each other for a long time and some of the guys are new and have done very well. It's a great atmosphere and everyone goes 100 percent for each other, so it's perfect."
 
Despite holding a 38-30 shot advantage against Russia in its preliminary-round game, Ronnberg said Russia had 19 quality scoring opportunities. Russia coach Valeri Bragin is hoping his team can build on that effort.
 
"It's going to be difficult because the Swedish team is rested well for two days," Bragin said. "We had an advantage in scoring chances but we just couldn't get the puck in the net. Right now, rest is the main thing."
 
Bragin should expect Sweden to come out of the gate flying.
 
"The way we play, we have a four-line team and we expect all four lines to work hard, backcheck hard, finish hits, block shots … whatever it takes to win," Ronnberg said. "We also expect all four lines to create offense. We have seen throughout the tournament that our lines are doing that."
 
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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