SASKATOON - The 2010 world junior hockey championship is shaping up to be another strong one for Sweden, which lost to Canada in the last two finals of this event.
The Swedes, who fell 5-1 to the hosts last year in Ottawa and lost 3-2 in overtime to Canada the previous year in Pardubice, Czech Republic, head into the medal round in Saskatoon undefeated and outscoring the opposition 28-6.
Like Canada, they secured the bye to Sunday's semifinal by going undefeated in Group B. They'll play the U.S. who advanced after beating Finland 6-2 later Saturday.
But barring a semifinal upset, Canada and Sweden appear to be on a collision course again.
"We have a lot of pressure and I think we like it," said Edmonton Oilers prospect Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson. "Hopefully we can bring the gold back home.
"We definitely have the skills. We score a lot of goals and can outplay any team in this tournament."
The Swedes have eight players returning from the 2009 junior team, including six-foot-five goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who is a Florida Panthers draft pick.
Paajarvi-Svensson, trying to win a gold after two straight silver medals, leads the Swedes in scoring with three goals and six assists in four games.
"This year is the best so far," he said. "A lot of players were in the final last year and developed a lot through that final against Canada. Markstrom is one more year older and I am one more year older."
Ottawa Senators prospect Andre Petersson is second on the team in scoring with five goals and three assists in four games.
The Swedes have carried a strong attack from year to year during their current run, but are cutting down on their goals-against thanks to Markstrom, according to Paajarvi Svennson.
"I think the big difference is we don't let so many goals in," he explained. "Markstrom in the net is so good. We have faith in him and he has good confidence. The team is really looking forward to the semifinal."
Sweden is without defencemen Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson, who are in the NHL playing for Tampa Bay and Ottawa respectively.
But they handily beat Russia 4-1 in their best game of the preliminary round in Regina. Despite getting outshot 26-3 and outplayed in the first period against the Finns, Sweden thumped their Scandinavian neighbours 7-1 to clinch the bye.
Markstrom had an eventful final against Canada in Ottawa. The towering goalie for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League was involved in two helmet-removing collisions - one of his own making - and was tripped outside his crease in the first 40 minutes.
"The last final meant a lot to him," said head coach Par Marts. "They took a lot of hits on him. It seems he learned to focus more and not concentrate on everything else. He's stronger and more experienced."
Sweden has won gold at the world junior championship only once, which was in 1981 when the tournament was still a round-robin format. Current assistant coach Peter Sundstrom was a member of that team.
Given Sweden's resurgence in this tournament and the number of NHL prospects the country has, the world junior tournament is now getting more respect and attention in that country.
This year's team was announced live on a popular Monday night hockey show.
"Five or six years ago, it wasn't that big at all, but when it was in Sweden in Leksand in 2007 and after that we had two straight silver medals, the tournament grew bigger," Markstrom said.
After years of finishing out of the medals in this tournament, the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation sat down with the country's junior coaches in 2002 and compiled a list of 100 items that needed to be addressed for the country to better develop its junior players, Marts said.
One change was to play hard and tough in front of their own net and the opposing net like the Canadians do.
"Our guys are skilled in receiving, skating and passing and things like that," Marts explained. "We have to take the battle in front of the net. That's what we practised and talked a lot of."
Those changes are taking hold now in the form of contending teams at the world under-20 tournament.
"We're talking about gold now," Marts said. "We're shooting for the top. You can't do that if you're not looking at that position."
This is Marts's third straight year coaching the Swedish juniors, so the players aren't the only ones anxious to take that next step up the podium.