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Depth and top talent gives Sweden gold

by Risto Pakarinen

Risto Pakarinen is an correspondent based in Stockholm who has covered the international hockey scene for the past two decades.

If you've waited for something for 31 years, what's another ten minutes, right? Maybe the fact that the final of the 2012 World Junior Championship went into overtime just made the wait and the victory even sweeter. Maybe Sweden had to get to a couple of finals in 2008 and 2009 and lose.

Or maybe the 2012 team was just one special bunch of players.

A special bunch, just like the guys on the 1981 gold-medal winning team – Lars Eriksson, Peter Åslin, Håkan Nordin, Patrik Sundström, Roger Hägglund, Jan Erixon, Jan Ingman, Peter Sundsträm, Jens Öhling, Mikael Thelven, Michael Granstedt, Peter Andersson, Martin Pettersson, Anders Björklund, Anders Jonsson, Peter Madach, Peter Nilsson, Robert Nordmark, Ove Pettersson, and Dan Nicklasson.

Winning the gold medal surely makes the 2012 squad historic. Now the quest that already had been impressive took on historic levels. Going back to their first time on the ice together, in Lake Placid, N.Y., in August, the team played 19 games together and didn’t lose any of them in regulation (overtime losses to a U.S. team in August and Russia in September). They were close, but always ended up on the right side of things, even in the WJC.

"Anybody can be the guy to score the winning goal for the team and be the hero. We had a lot of guys not reaching their potential before this game -- that's Mika. Saving his best game when we needed it the most … he was really good today." -- Sweden coach Roger Ronnberg

Sweden beat Switzerland in a penalty shootout in its second game of the tournament. In their last preliminary-round game, they beat Russia in overtime, having rallied from 3-0 down in the third period to clinch the semifinal berth. In the semifinal they were down 2-0 to Finland after two periods, and trailed 2-1 with 1:44 remaining, but tied the game and won it in a shootout.

And in the final, they had to work for more than 70 minutes to beat Russia.

Mika Zibanejad had scored just 3 goals in the tournament before the final -- two against Latvia in the first game of the tournament, and one against Slovakia in a game that Sweden won 9-1.

"I told the guys that it didn't matter what you did before this game," Sweden coach Roger Ronnberg said. "Anybody can be the guy to score the winning goal for the team and be the hero. We had a lot of guys not reaching their potential before this game -- that's Mika. Saving his best game when we needed it the most … he was really good today."

In the final, the player who started his season in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators rose to the occasion, and in a style that was reminiscent of Mats Sundin, cut to the center, moved the puck to his backhand and beat Andrei Makarov to win the game.

But it wasn't just Zibanejad who rose to the occasion in the tournament. Max Friberg's high for goals in a season is 14 with the Skövde under-18 team in Division I (the third tier of Swedish hockey). Last season, he scored 2 goals in six games at the World Juniors. This season he has 1 goal and 2 assists in 28 games for Timra in the Swedish Elite league while playing about eight minutes per game.

2012 World Junior Championship

Highlighting the win

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In one of the more thrilling finishes to a WJC hockey game, Russia built a five-goal lead, only to escape with a 6-5 victory against Canada. READ MORE ›

In this tournament, Friberg had 9 goals in six games, and earned a place on the tournament All-Star Team.

Goaltender Johan Gustafsson didn't have an easy tournament playing behind a team that dominated big parts of most of the games. He faced just 107 shots, half of what Russia's Andrei Vasilevski faced in his five games, and going into the final, Gustafsson's save percentage was just .867.

In the final, Sweden outshot Russia 39-4 in the first two periods and 58-17 in the game; when it mattered, Gustafsson's save percentage was a perfect 1.000. 

Oscar Klefbom, who joined Friberg on the tournament the All-Star Team, led all defensemen with a plus-8 rating.

Patrik Nemeth had 5 assists in the tournament; one of them was on the overtime goal that beat Russia in the preliminary-round finale, and he picked up another backchecking Thursday when he robbed a Russian player of the puck just above the blue line. The Russian defenseman hesitated, the puck was left loose on the ice, and it was there for Zibanejad to take.

"It's an unbelievable feeling. There are no words," a hoarse Zibanejad told Swedish television after the game.

On Saturday, the team will get an unbelievable welcome home during a hockeyfest in downtown Stockholm.

And take their place in Swedish hockey history.
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