When Swedish goaltender Johan Gustafsson
looked up at center ice, he saw Mikael Granlund
. Gustafsson and Granlund are fellow Wild prospects and could one day be teammates. But on this day and at this moment, Granlund was the one person who could squash the hopes of a gold medal for Sweden and its three Wild prospects at the World Junior Championship.
Gustafsson knows all about what Granlund can do in shootout situations.
“I know that he’s a skilled player and he can do almost anything with the puck,” said the Swedish keeper, who was looking to remain undefeated at the tournament. “I didn’t know what to expect. I just came out and did like I always do, try to make it the hardest for him.”
That’s the plan for most goalies, but Gustafsson was at Wild Development Camp this past July when Granlund did this. But the stakes for this one were higher than the end of a scrimmage in the summer. It was to get to the biggest game on one of the biggest stages in hockey.
Gustafsson could not believe what he saw – the puck rolling off Granlund’s stick and out of reach before the Finnish phenomenon could get off a shot. Gustafsson raised his arms, started jumping and was mobbed by his teammates; including Wild second round pick Johan Larsson
and first rounder, Jonas Brodin
“He lost the puck, it got away,” said Gustafsson. “That means we won, and I’m happy for that.”
He and his teammates are one victory away from Sweden’s first gold medal since 1981. Winning the second gold medal for Sweden at this tournament would be special, but Gustafsson says it’s even better having Larsson and Brodin here with him.
“It’s very special,” he said. “They are two of my greatest buddies ever. We’re all good buddies on this team, but I’ve known Johan for a long time before we got into the national program. With Jonas, we’ve played on the same team for two years so I know him well. They are two good buddies of mine, and it’s really fun to be here to play with them. It’s a good feeling.”
Larsson was also at the Wild’s July camp with Gustafsson and Granlund. He could hardly explain the feeling when he saw the unexpected.
“I was so happy,” said Larsson. “It was such hard work for that win.”
Larsson knows all about hard work, and he showed it during the entire game. He’s a tireless worker with good speed and the ability to play physical and crash the net. With Sweden down 2-0 in the third and getting stymied by Finnish goaltender Sami Aittokallio all game, Larsson helped change that. He launched a heavy shot from the top of the left circle. The rebound bounced off a Swedish leg and the comeback was started.
If Sweden can score a victory against a Russian team that they’ve already beaten in this tournament, Larsson would be the second Swedish captain to win a World Junior gold medal.
“It’s a really tough tournament,” he said. “There are really good players and really good teams so…it’s tough.”
And he knows Sweden has to be better, despite an undefeated record.
“We have not played so well. This game was not so good. But we’re in the final and we can stay focused on playing how we know we can.”
Of course, goaltending will be key in the gold medal game. And Gustafsson, who struggled in the tournament-opening win over Latvia, has gotten better every game.
I got into this tournament with a whole lot of confidence,” said the Swedish Elite League goaltender with a 1.99 goals against average in 19 games with Lulea HF. “I still have that, because at the end of the day it comes down to winning hockey games and I’ve won all four I played this tournament.”
He just needs one more.