Over the course of the last decade, Norway's once-maligned hockey program has made slow but steady progress. More than once in recent years, Norway has thrown scares into Canada and Russia at the IIHF World Championship. These games usually were low-scoring affairs in which Norway heavily relied on their goaltending and team defense to keep them close in games against powerhouse opponents.
Last year, however, Norway appeared to be on the brink of a breakthrough in the international hockey world. They handled the lesser teams with relative aplomb. More impressively, Norway pulled off a huge upset in the preliminary round, downing eventual silver medalist Sweden 5-4 in a shootout. Later, Norway managed a milder upset of favored Switzerland with a 3-2 win.
Just a few short years removed being a team viewed as one that only could beat archrival Denmark and avoid the relegation phase of the tournament, Norway reached the medal round at last year's World Championship, and gave eventual gold-medalist Finland all it could handle for nearly half of the game. After an evenly played, scoreless first period, Ken-Andre Olimb scored on a penalty shot to give Norway the lead. But the advantage was short-lived, as Finland scored four goals to take over the game and eliminate Norway.
So far in the Stockholm-hosted portion of the 2012 World Championships, Norway has built on its performance of last year. Through its first seven games of the preliminary round, Norway has compiled four wins plus a shootout loss to the Czech Republic. Even Norway's losses, to Sweden and Russia were close, hard-fought games.
Norway even has added an unexpected wrinkle to its game: Explosive offensive ability. With 33 goals in its first seven games, Norway trails only Canada in that department. Norway's power play has clicked at a robust 30 percent (9-for-30) and leads all teams in the tournament in converting shots into goals, with a 15.61-percent team shooting percentage.
The offensive outburst has been accomplished without two of the more prominent Norwegian forwards available for the tournament. Neither veteran Tore Vikingstad (Stavanger Oilers) nor New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello is playing in the tournament; nevertheless, coach Roy Johansen's team has not lacked for purpose and direction.
Most of the offensive damage has been done in the last two games. Norway headed into a meeting with Germany as a slight underdog, but instead won in an historic 12-4 rout. They followed it with a 6-2 defeat of Denmark.
Former NHL forward Patrick Thoresen has been Norway's most dangerous offensive weapon during its 18-goal outburst in its last two games. In that span he has four goals and six assists. He had three goals and three assists against Germany and added a goal and three assists against Denmark.
As a result, Thoresen has jumped into the tournament scoring lead with 16 points in seven games.
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The 28-year-old Thoresen's offensive production may surprise those who followed him only in the NHL. In 106 regular-season games with the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers, Thoreson had just six goals and 24 points. Despite being assigned to a checking role most of the time, he didn't lack for scoring chances in his modest ice time. He simply struggled to finish the plays.
However, at every other level of hockey -- European pro, international competition, American Hockey League and Canadian junior -- Thoresen has been a top-notch offensive player. Since returning to Europe after the 2007-08 NHL season, his offensive confidence has returned. Thoresen has been a leading scorer in the KHL and the Swiss National League, excelling in the playmaking and goal-scoring departments.
While it has been his offensive ability that has been his hallmark outside the NHL, it is the completeness of his game in which Thoresen has taken the greatest pride.
"I'm not really a big guy (5-foot-11, 188 pounds), so I rely on my skating," he told NHL.com in 2008. "I think that's one of my biggest strengths. I also try to be a two-way player."
This outlook has not changed, even as his offensive role expanded upon his return to Europe. On a yearly basis, Thoresen has compiled stellar plus/minus ratings, including a league-leading plus-45 while playing for the Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL during the 2009-10 season.
Apart from their 18-goal outburst against Germany and Denmark, Norway also earned a 3-0 shutout of Latvia. In that game, goals by Jonas Holos, Andreas Martinsen and Thoresen built a formidable lead through two periods. Norway's defense slammed the door in the third period, limiting Latvia to six shots in the final 20 minutes. Goaltender Lars Haugen took care of the rest, stopping 25 shots for the game.
During his four seasons back in Europe, Thoresen has received several offers from NHL teams to return to North America. However, the proposals always have been two-way contracts, with no assurances of being placed in the mix to compete for a regular NHL job. In Europe, Thoresen enjoys top-line ice time, plays in all situations and earns more money than he would on the AHL portion of a two-way contract.
In international competition, Thoresen has emerged as one of Norway's leaders on and off the ice. Several years ago, the national program faced an internal crisis, resulting in a turnover of its leadership. The input of Thoresen and other crucial players on the national team helped spearhead changes that have led to icing a more competitive team on the ice in international competition.
Just as important, Thoresen has shown a willingness to take charge in the locker room and on the ice beyond simply wearing a letter on the front of his jersey. Along with national team captain Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and fellow assistant captain Anders Bastiansen as well as experienced veterans Morten Ask, Mats Trygg and Mads Hansen, Thoresen is part of the leadership group that forms the team's backbone.
Thoresen told his home media that the team won't be happy simply to return to the medal round this year. Even if a medal is unlikely, Norway's goal is to take one further step this year and hold up better in the quarterfinals. Nevertheless, he remains realistic about his team's stature.
"Every game, we have to go out and prove ourselves again," he said. "The only way we win games is when everyone contributes. We're not expected to beat teams like Sweden, Russia or Canada, but we set high goals for ourselves. It's nice to score a lot of goals, but that's not going to happen every game."