SOCHI -- After another huge blow for Sweden, it feels like the Black Sea is parting for the North American teams at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Sweden captain Henrik Zetterberg is out of the tournament with a herniated disk in his back, the Swedish Hockey Federation announced Friday.
Sweden has one of the deepest rosters in the tournament, but losing Zetterberg is particularly tough because the team was already without center Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks. Before the Olympics, a trio of Sedin, Zetterberg and Nicklas Backstrom was equal to Canada’s top three and superior to any other team in Sochi.
Now Backstrom is the last man standing, and the Washington Capitals center will need to take a starring role for the Swedes if they are to remain gold-medal contenders. Patrik Berglund looks like the best bet to slide into the No. 2 role, with Marcus Kruger likely on the third line. Washington Capitals forward Marcus Johansson, who replaced Sedin on the final roster, could end up in the middle of the fourth line.
"It's a tough loss," said Daniel Alfredsson, who scored the only goal Friday in a 1-0 win against Switzerland. "We had a few of those before the Olympics as well. It is just like anything -- you deal with it and move on. We're going to be thinking about Henrik for the rest of tournament. He'll be with us. We're going to move forward. We have good depth on our team, and Berglund stepping up is going to play a big role for us going forward. Nothing changes as far as our goals or what we want to accomplish as far as our goals."
The Swedes also were without Red Wings veteran Johan Franzen, who can play center. Backstrom, Berglund and Kruger may play well, but the position is no longer an overwhelming strength for Tre Konor.
Sweden has defeated the Czech Republic, the second-best team in Group C, as well as Switzerland, essentially wrapping up the top spot in the group and a bye into the quarterfinals.
"Yeah, we've got a lot of injuries," Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin said. "That's when you need other guys to step up and this was a big win. If we get the win [Saturday] then we're going to win the group and that means a lot."
Before injury woes befell Sweden, it was neighbor and rival Finland that began this tournament with significant issues at center. Its top three players at the position -- Mikko Koivu, Saku Koivu and Valtteri Filppula -- were not available because of injury. Finland is using NHL rookie Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers on its top line.
Sweden defeated Finland in the gold-medal game at the 2006 Turin Olympics, which was the last time the Olympics were staged in Europe. Those teams are now without five of their top six centers.
The United States and Canada struggled in Turin and at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, each time finishing out of the medals. Suddenly, the path to the gold-medal game looks easier to navigate for the Americans and Canadians.
The Russians are certainly going to be a major roadblock, but center Pavel Datsyuk, also of the Red Wings, may not be 100 percent after recently returning from an injury.
If there are issues for the North American countries adapting to the larger ice, because of the travel, or whatever else has been a problem in the past, other gold-medal contenders losing key players to injury will help negate some of those factors.
Center was considered a weakness for the United States before the 2013-14 NHL season started, but Ryan Kesler has been healthy after two seasons that were decidedly not for the Canucks. San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski is among the League leaders in goals.
And now there is no other team in Sochi that can match Canada down the middle in depth or talent.
Sweden is still one of the strongest teams in the competition on defense and in goal with New York Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist. The Swedes might have to lean on their goal prevention more with so much offense out of the lineup.
“Of course it's nothing one wishes for, but we have to see the possibilities and look forward,” Marts said.
Sweden can win gold in Sochi, but the chances for the Canadians and Americans improved Friday before either team played its second game.