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Defending Olympic champs take on feisty Slovaks

by Brian Hunter
Sweden (3-0-0-0) vs. Slovakia (2-1-0-1)

What to watch --  The line of Loui Eriksson, Nicklas Backstrom and Daniel Alfredsson has been lights out for Sweden during these Vancouver games. Eriksson comes off a two-goal performance against Finland and leads the team with three goals, while Backstrom is first with four assists and five points. Alfredsson has a pair of goals and, as the longtime captain of the Ottawa Senators and a stalwart of Sweden's goal-medal winner from 2006, brings veteran leadership.

"Watching him in Dallas all the time, he always seems to end up around the puck or the net somehow," Team Sweden coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson said of Eriksson, who broke out to score 36 goals in his third NHL season and has 23 so far this season for the Stars. "He has good hands and good feet. He has been doing good, and together with Backstrom and Alfredsson they have really found it. They have good chemistry."

Henrik Lundqvist recorded shutouts in both starts he made during the preliminary round, and will now face a Slovakia team that dug itself an early hole in this tournament by losing to the Czech Republic but rebounded in grand fashion with a 2-1 shootout win over Group B winner Russia. This will be the second game in as many days for Slovakia, which had to expend its fair share of energy to dispatch of Norway, and the players recognize it will take a much greater effort if they hope to reach the semifinals.

"We just have to turn 360 degrees and play way better, because it is not going to be enough against Sweden," forward Marian Gaborik said.

Last game --  Sweden defeated Finland 3-0 in the preliminary round Sunday; Slovakia defeated Norway 4-3 in the qualification round Tuesday.

Team Reports:

--  It's rarely easy to knock off a defending champion, even when there's four long years between the title and the defense, and Sweden showed the world during the preliminary round that it will be a serious contender for another gold medal. Although the Swedes took their time rounding into form, starting off with two-goal victories over Germany and Belarus in games where more of a lopsided final score was probably expected, they played by far their best game of the tournament with Group C on the line against Finland, which had entered also undefeated.

Two things stood out for Sweden on Sunday: Lundqvist in goal, and the play of its specialty teams. The power play connected on a pair of tallies by Eriksson, including a 5-on-3 goal that opened the scoring in the first period, and when the Swedes got into penalty trouble and took six consecutive minors -- creating a pair of 5-on-3 opportunities for Finland in the second period -- their penalty kill yielded just four shots on goal. The pucks that did come Lundqvist's way he turned aside with relative ease. He has stopped all 41 shots against him to this point.

"The thing is, you can feel so good and then you go into the game and get a couple of bad bounces and it can turn in the wrong direction," Lundqvist said. "So yeah, we're happy with the first three games, but on Wednesday, it doesn't really matter. You have to start over. Your mindset has to be the first five minutes."

Slovakia –-  While its opening loss to the arch-rival Czechs immediately put Slovakia behind the eight ball as far as winning Group B and getting a bye into the quarterfinals was concerned, the huge victory over Russia and a 6-0 pasting of Latvia instilled a lot of confidence heading into Tuesday's qualifying-round game against Norway. Maybe a little too much confidence, in fact. The Slovaks hardly looked like world-beaters and allowed the upset-minded Norwegians into a 3-3 tie headed to the third period. Miroslav Satan's goal midway through the third ensured Slovakia would advance, but a far better effort will be needed to oust Sweden.

In Olympic play especially, it often holds true that no one person embodies his team's play more than the goaltender, and it holds true for Montreal Canadiens netminder Jaroslav Halak. He was brilliant throughout much of the preliminary round, particularly against Russia, but allowed three goals on the first 12 shots he faced against Norway. But it's not fair to put the onus entirely on Halak to come up big Wednesday -- Slovakia as a team must show far greater attention to detail and put its goalie in the best position possible to make the necessary stops to win the game.

"Tonight we knew we had to win and for whatever reason we were a little bit nervous," forward Marian Hossa said. "Even when we had the lead 3-1, the puck didn't sit on our sticks. It was bouncing and we weren't in our spots. I think we are going to be more comfortable playing against a stronger team, a team that creates more offense and doesn't just sit back in the neutral zone. I think Sweden is going to play good defensively, but it won't be just tight in the neutral zone and I think we'll play better."

Total NHL players on rosters -- Sweden 19; Slovakia 13

Puck drop --  Gaborik has taken plenty of shots against Lundqvist over the past five months, but none of them counted. Now, instead of pre-game skates, the teammates on the New York Rangers could end up staging a one-on-one battle that decides which nation moves onto the semifinals and gets the chance to compete for a medal and which goes home.

"I know Gabby likes to come hard on the wing and stays up high a lot and waits for mistakes. And when he gets the puck he goes hard," Lundqvist said in regards to his book on Gaborik. "The thing about him and (Hossa) too is that they keep the puck in front of them so they can move it and shoot it at the same time. And that's something that makes you a little more difficult to read." prediction
--  This shapes up to be a tremendous goaltending duel between Lundqvist and Halak -- assuming, that is, the latter plays more like he did in the preliminary round, when he posted a 1.71 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. Sweden wins a low-scoring, 2-1 game and advances to the semifinals against Canada.

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