By Andy Potts – IIHF.com
Sweden won its second game in Beijing, overcoming Slovakia thanks to a strong goaltending display from Magnus Hellberg.
The 30-year-old netminder, currently with HC Sochi in the KHL, got on the ice at the Olympics for the first time here. He went to PyeongChang with the Swedes but was an unused third choice in that tournament. Today, making up for lost time, he calmly neutralised a lively Slovak offence, making 40 saves in total and only missing out on a shut-out thanks to a late goal from Juraj Slafkovsky.
“It was my first Olympic game, so it was a lot of emotions and excitement,” Hellberg said afterwards. “I haven’t played a game in almost one month. It was a lot of fun out there. I think we did a really good job as a team. The guys really helped me a lot.”
“It was a great job by Magnus in net,” added Joakim Nordstrom, scorer of Sweden’s first goal. “We were blocking shots, doing the small things to get the pucks out. We got to keep building our game.”
At the other end, Slovakia started with Matej Tomek. The 24-year-old from Kometa Brno is the youngest of the three goalies in Craig Ramsay’s stable and he was preferred to veteran Branislav Konrad, who allowed six goals in yesterday’s loss to Finland. However, there was no dream debut for the youngster, who was replaced by Patrik Rybar after a difficult first period.
That opening frame saw Slovakia enjoy the better of much of the play, outshooting Sweden 14-12 and initially creating the more dangerous chances. Slafkovsky, the 17-year-old who announced himself in style with two goals against the Finns, looked menacing again. The best Slovak chance in the early stages, though, went to captain Marek Hrivik. His effective partnership with Peter Cehlarik is renewed here, and the Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod forward went close to converting a pass from his line-mate, only for Hellberg to make the save.
Then Sweden conjured a response. Up until Joakim Nordstrom’s opener, the Tre Kronor had struggled to turn an equal share of possession into a dangerous chance. But a good combination around Tomek’s net saw Lukas Bengtsson deceive everyone when he shaped for a point shot. The Slovak defence and goalie drifted out of position and the Swedish D-man slipped a pass to Nordstrom, who needed no second invitation as he stood all alone in front of an open net.
Late in the first, Sweden took control of the scoreboard with two further goals. First, Lucas Wallmark added to his two goals against Latvia with a tally on a 5-on-3 power play. The CSKA Moscow forward used Martin Marincin as a screen to find Tomek’s top corner. Then, back at equal strength, the Swedes added a third when Max Friberg redirected Philip Holm’s point shot in off the post.
“[Those early goals are] big for our confidence,” said Nordstrom. “It’s a tough lead to have and they did a really good job trying to score. They were playing good offence. When there’s not much time left they take more chances.”
Wallmark, meanwhile, is enjoying his start to life at the Olympics. “I’m playing with good players, that helps a lot.,” he said of his three goals to date. “We won the puck in the offensive zone and I just tried to find the net and when you play with good players it makes it a lot easier.”
That spelled the end for Tomek, who was replaced by Rybar at the start of the second period. The Dynamo Minsk man made a good stop to deny his clubmate Bengtsson midway through the frame and dealt with everything else that Sweden could throw at him in a goalless middle session.
However, Slovakia, which was missing forward Marko Dano due to suspension, was unable to find a cutting edge at the other end. Slafkovsky continued to look dangerous, but the Slovak power play slipped to 0 from 3 for the game and 0 from 7 in the tournament so far. Not even a few seconds of 5-on-3 play could greatly trouble Hellberg, with the goalie completing 30 saves through 40 minutes.
“It was a tough hockey game,” said Slovakia’s defenceman Martin Marancin. “Sweden played very well, pressured hard. We knew that they skate a lot. We have to play simpler in the D-zone and go forecheck.”
In the Latvia game, Sweden opened a 3-0 lead only to end up hanging on to a slender 3-2 advantage. That might have given hope to Slovakia, but the third period started badly for Ramsay’s team, with a high sticking call sending Pavol Regenda to the box for a double minor. Even though the penalty was killed without misadventure, it was time that the Slovaks could ill-afford to spend on the defensive.
There were more scoring chances: Hellberg came up with a big pad save to deny Michal Kristof on the breakaway at one end, then Rybar did well to deny Anton Lander when the Swedish captain got onto Jacob de la Rosa’s backhand feed to the slot and looked to put the game beyond reach.
Slovakia’s power play problems continued. A fourth attempt in this game came to naught midway through the third period as Sweden deployed an aggressive PK that halted the advance in centre ice and ran down the clock with some ease.
With 2:38 to play, Slovakia withdrew Rybar in favour of an extra skater. However, summing up Slovak fortunes, the only result was an empty-net goal for Carl Klingberg.
Slafkovsky had the final word, snapping home a fiery finish in the closing seconds to rob Hellberg of his shut-out. That’s the youngster’s third goal of the Games – he’s scored all of Slovakia’s goals – and cements his status as top pick at this year’s NHL draft. He was assisted by another 17-year-old prodigy, Simon Nemec.
The Swedish win means that the Tre Kronor can secure top spot in Group C – and a bye to the quarter finals – with victory over Finland in its final group game. Slovakia is still seeking a first victory in Beijing and completes its group stage program against Latvia on Sunday.
“We had a better game today than we had yesterday and we have to build on that,” Nordstrom summarized. “We have guys coming from all over the world to a short tournament with not so many practices. We took one step today and are going to keep moving to the right direction.”