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Karlsson, Ekman-Larsson shine in Olympic debuts

by Arpon Basu

SOCHI -- A nation watched Wednesday as Sweden embarked on its first Olympic tournament including NHL players without likely Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom on the team.

What they saw was the future of their country's elite talent on the blue line making its Olympic debut.

Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators and the Phoenix Coyotes' Oliver Ekman-Larsson make up Sweden's top pair on defense, but it is their offensive abilities that make them such a dangerous combination.

They proved it Wednesday, with Karlsson scoring twice and Ekman-Larsson getting two assists to help lead Sweden to a 4-2 win against the Czech Republic in the opening game of the 2014 Sochi Olympics for both teams.

"They're so skilled," said Daniel Alfredsson, Karlsson's former teammate with the Senators. "It's great to see them get off to this kind of start obviously. They're a pair to watch in this tournament. I totally believe [that]. Today was a great example. They made things happen. The same thing with their skating ability, they also played good defense."

That may be true, but the fact is that both Karlsson and Ekman-Larsson found themselves deep in the offensive zone on a regular basis. Sometimes they were even there at the same time.

"A couple of times Erik and I were the first guys up [the ice]," Ekman-Larsson admitted.

In the NHL this would be unheard of and would give most coaches heart attacks.

But for Sweden and its coach Par Marts, the free-wheeling forays into the offensive zone are not frowned upon. They are even encouraged.

"They need to play this type of game," Marts said. "They are learning all the time. Ekman-Larsson has played good defense all year and Karlsson is good on the power play. They need to play together to improve, but it worked well today."

Karlsson scored each of his goals on shots from the point, the first set up by a nifty play from Ekman-Larsson to get the puck over to him and the second on a rocket on the power play. With that much creativity and firepower on one defense pairing, one that has the green light to push the play into the other team's end, opposing coaches will be faced with a rather unique threat to attempt to defuse.

It won't be easy.

"They have the ability to be as dynamic as they were today," Alfredsson said. "Both are so agile, move the puck, pass the puck really well and skate really well, so they can recover a lot of times themselves. I think that's what makes Erik so good. He gambles at times, but the way he selects to go or not go is great. We need him to do that and he can make mistakes. It puts the other team on their heels defensively."

The power play is where the pairing's talents were most obvious, and Karlsson said he is looking forward to continuing to improve the special teams unit as the tournament moves along.

"It's not bad," Karlsson said with a laugh. "We've got some pretty good players out there. It makes it a lot easier, you can move around a little bit more and trust that they're going to get the puck to you. It's something that I've been looking forward to for quite some time now."

Karlsson and Alfredsson are enjoying this opportunity to play and spend some time together. Alfredsson played a big role in getting Karlsson acclimated to the League, putting him up at his house in Ottawa and easing his transition to North America.

For a first Olympic game against a difficult opponent, Karlsson couldn't have dreamed it would have gone much better than it did. Except Alfredsson believes there is more to come.

"I thought he was good today," he said, "but I've seen him even better."

That thought should cause some sleepless nights for opposing coaches in Sochi.

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