TORONTO - If this was supposed to be a down year for Team Sweden at the World Junior Hockey Championship, someone forgot to send the memo to Shark prospect Julius Bergman and his teammates.
After blowout losses to Canada and the U.S. in pre-tournament exhibition games, the Swedes have looked sharp in all phases of the game in handily winning their first two official tournament clashes - cruising past the Czech Republic 5-2 Friday, followed by a 5-1 pasting of Denmark Saturday.
SHARKS AT WORLD JUNIORS
The team has a day off on Sunday to get ready for a much-anticipated match-up against Russia - and Shark first-round pick Nikolai Goldobin - on Monday.
"Two games and two wins - it's all we can hope for here," said Bergman, who was taken in the second round, and 46th overall by the Sharks in this year's entry draft. "We just have to keep playing better and better as the tournament goes. We just have to keep the train rolling here. We didn't play as well against the U.S. and Canada but those two games didn't mean anything and I think we've stepped up one or two steps here. I think we're playing well."
Bergman, who picked up an assist in the Denmark game, is one of only two 19-year-olds on the Swedish defense, although this is the first time he's ever played in the World Juniors.
It's also the first time he has played in an NHL arena.
"This game in this building is something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life," said the Stockholm native.
Rather than stay with Frolunda of the Swedish elite league, Bergman decided to play for the powerhouse London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League this season. It has given him a chance to get used to the smaller ice surface that is used in North America, meaning he can provide plenty of tips to teammates who are only accustomed to the big European ice.
"I had problems maybe my first 10 games in London," said Bergman, who has logged four goals and 16 assists in 30 games for the Knights this season.
"With the smaller ice, it all goes a little bit faster and goes a little it harder to the net and the angles are different. Especially as a 'D,' you have to be in the lane all the time, blocking shots, because it's so tight in front of the net."
Bergman is leading by example on that. In the Denmark game, with Sweden comfortably up 4-0, he didn't hesitate to throw his body in front of a shot to prevent a scoring chance.
"I think I have to be a leader," said the six-foot-one, 194-pounder, who has the only right-handed shot among Swedish defenders. "I'm just trying to help all of our defensemen out there."
Now Bergman will turn his attention to Russia, and because he generally gets the assignment of trying to shut down the other team's top line, it means going face-to-face with fellow Shark prospect Nikolai Goldobin.
In the Russians' opener against Denmark, the team came out flat and found themselves quickly behind 2-0 against the upstart Danes. It was Goldobin who salvaged the game for his side, scoring with a quick wrist shot from the side of the net to close the gap to 2-1 with less than a minute remaining in the first period. Then, with the game tied at 2-2 and in a sudden-death shootout, he scored the game winner, going five-hole against Danish goaltender George Sorensen.
Bergman feels he's up for the challenge posed by Goldobin.
"He's a smart player who can really dangle the puck. I've seen him a couple of times and for sure I know what he's going to do and I'm going to try to shut him down. But it's going to be tough."
He added that his battle with Goldobin promises to be typical of what to expect in the game that will probably determine first place in the tournament's Toronto group.
"There will be a lot of battles in front of both nets. The team that does the best job there is the team that will the game. I think we have to step up even one step from the Czech game. But I have no doubts about this team.
I think we're going to go out there and play and good game. It will be a really good game between two really good teams."
Before Russia faces Sweden, the team will play Sunday against Switzerland, which features Shark defender Mirco Mueller and forward prospect Noah Rod.