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Sweden armed to protect the gold

by John McGourty
Groundhog Day, Swedish style.

Anticipating who will play for, and perhaps even captain, Team Sweden in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver will resemble the summer of 2008 and the first half of the 2008-09 NHL season. Whither Mats Sundin?

Will the greatest Swedish player in NHL history return for his fourth bid for Olympic gold and his 18th time representing
Sweden in international competition? There's little doubt about Sundin's place in Swedish hockey history and in the NHL. He is the country's all-time leading NHL scorer (558 goals and 768 assists for 1,326 points in 1,315 NHL games) and ranks 29th all-time among NHL scorers and fourth among active NHL players.

"I do take it almost by day now in my hockey career," Sundin said of future Olympic aspirations. "Fourteen months is a long way away."

Former Washington Capitals left wing Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, 50, will again be the coach of Sweden's 2010 Olympic hockey team. Sundin told Gustafsson in early January that he is focusing on helping the Vancouver Canucks this season and will decide this summer if he wants to play another year.

"We have to make the preliminary picks sometime this summer and then can add some players, so I'll be watching what happens next November and December to see who is hot then," Gustafsson told "Sundin and (Peter) Forsberg are great players, but we will need every player to be at his best for the Olympics."

The Swedes will be looking to defend the Olympic gold medal won in 2006 at Torino, Italy. Sweden defeated Finland, 4-3, in the gold-medal game. Nicklas Lidstrom scored the winning goal early in the third period and Sweden held off the furious Finns.

Sweden had the best penalty killing and shooting percentage of the 12 teams in the Olympics and the second-best power play. Surprisingly, their goaltending ranked only seventh, with a .903 save percentage. Swedish players served the fourth-lowest number of penalty minutes and scored no shorthanded goals.

Sweden beat Kazakhstan, Latvia, the United States, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, and lost to Russia and Slovakia before upsetting the undefeated Finns. For the Swedes, it was their second Olympic gold medal in 14 years. They also won in 1994, with a team comprised of non-NHL players, in a shootout victory over Canada.

Gustafsson did make one early personnel decision.

"If there are no problems, Henrik Lundqvist is our top goalie and then it's probably Johan Holmqvist, who played with several NHL teams and is now the top goalie in the Swedish Elite League, with Vastra Frolunda HC in Goteborg," he said. "I'm thinking of going with those two guys and then picking a younger goalie so he can the experience of being in that kind of atmosphere."

Here is picks for the Swedish team at Vancouver.

Goalies: Henrik Lundqvist, Johan Holmqvist and Erik Ersberg -- Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in the world and an Olympic gold-medal winner from 2006. Lundqvist posted a 2006 record of 5-1 with a 2.97 goals-against average, stopping 143 of 157 shots.

Lundqvist posted a 24-15-4-2 record in his first 43 games this season with the Rangers. He had a 2.53 GAA and .913 save percentage. Only four NHL goalies have played in more games this year and only two have played more minutes. Lundqvist ranks sixth shots against and saves and fifth in wins. He has two shutouts.

Lundqvist combines good size, 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, with quick reflexes and excellent positioning. He was nominated for the Vezina Trophy in each of his first three seasons, finishing third each time. Before arriving in the NHL, Lundqvist was the top SEL goalie three times. He is only the second goalie in NHL history to record 30 or more wins in each of his first three seasons.

Holmqvist went 48-34-9-3 in 99 NHL games with the Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars from 2000-08. He had a career .890 save percentage and 2.99 GAA. In his defense, 93 games were with a declining Tampa Bay team. He has a .918 save percentage and 2.13 GAA for a team that is 19-19-9.

Los Angeles Kings backup goalie Erik Ersberg is 8-7-3 in 21 games with a .901 save percentage and 2.44 GAA but he has been fighting a groin problem since at least mid-December. Ersberg is a bit small at 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds. He was the SEL goalie of the year in 2007.

Looking for a longshot? Daniel Larsson, 23, the 92nd pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, is 16-5-1 for the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins with a .922 save percentage. Red Wings officials believe he can be as good as Lundqvist. Johan Backlund is in his third year as goaltender for Timra IK of the SEL and was named to the 2007 Swedish All-Star Team.

Defensemen: Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Johnny Oduya, Mattias Ohlund, Kim Johnsson, Niclas Havelid and Alexander Edler -- Team Sweden's will once again be led by the best defenseman in the world, Lidstrom, who has won the Norris  Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman in six of the past seven seasons.

Kronwall, an All-Star at the 2006 World Championship, is next among Swedish defensemen. Vancouver's Alexander Edler and New Jersey's Johnny Oduya boost their candidacies by having strong seasons. Edler, 22, and Oduya, 27, will have 3 1/2 NHL seasons under their belts when the Olympics begin.

Ohlund, 32, bids to make his fourth Olympic team. He is an 11-year NHL veteran, all with the Canucks. He will be one of the defensive leaders and energized by playing before his hometown fans, even if they're rooting against him. Havelid, 35, has some offensive ability, but will defer to others while providing
solid defense.

Toronto's Anton Stralman is the only right-shooting Swedish defenseman in the NHL and that might help him secure a roster spot. In that case, he could beat out Niclas Wallin, Doug Murray, Jonas Frogren, and a group of left-shooting SEL defenseman that includes Marcus Johansson, Magnus Ragnarsson and Daniel

"You mentioned 15 names, for six or seven positions, and at this point, everyone is in the picture," Gustafsson said. "Our biggest problem is a lack of right-shooting defenseman so that helps Stralman, who has played quite well for us in international games. We know he's been struggling in Toronto this season. Magnus Johansson, who played in the NHL, is in the Kontinental Hockey League this season and he's another right-handed shot."

Forwards: Mats Sundin, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Backstrom, Loui Eriksson, Mikael Samuelsson, Kristian Huselius, Samuel Pahlsson, P.J. Axelsson and Markus Naslund -- Sundin likely would be Sweden's top center, playing on a line between Vancouver's left winger Daniel Sedin and Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson. Vancouver's Henrik Sedin likely would center a second line between Detroit Red Wings forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom.

Washington's Nicklas Backstrom might center Dallas' left winger Loui Erikssson and Detroit right winger Mikael Samuelsson. St. Louis' Patrik Berglund could center one of two Columbus' left wingers, Kristian Huselius or Fredrik Modin, and either Nashville right winger Patric Hornqvist or one of four right wingers currently playing in Europe.

Former Florida and Calgary forward Marcus Nilson is playing for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in the Kontinental Hockey League. Former New York Islander Mattias Weinhandl is with Moscow Dynamo and former San Jose Shark Nils Ekman is with St. Petersburg. Karl Fabricius, a right winger with Vasta Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League, had a goal and three assists in six games at last year's World Championship.

The Swedes are strong at center and players like Anaheim's Samuel Pahlsson, Detroit's Johan Franzen, Edmonton's Robert Nilsson Kazan Ak-Bar's Tony Martensson are all candidates. Left wingers P.J. Axelsson, of the Boston Bruins, and Markus Naslund, of the New York Rangers, could also be candidates.

"We are weakest at right wing," Gustafsson said. "I have been using centers a lot on the right wing in recent years."

Axelsson and Pahlsson are strong defensive players with good penalty-killing skills, enhancing their chances. Sundin, Zetterberg, Pahlsson and Henrik Sedin are excellent on faceoffs.

Backstrom, 21, is enjoying a strong season with Washington and was the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft and the brightest young Swedish skater to enter the NHL in recent seasons. Sweden was one of the oldest teams in the 2006 Olympics and his youth and skills will be welcome.

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