It’s beast vs. least in the last game of preliminary Group C action later today as Team Sweden takes on the winless Team Latvia on in Sochi.
The game is scheduled to start at 17:00 GMT.
Though injury ravaged, the Swedes have looked pretty much faultless in their first two games, both victories. And, though valiant in defeat, the Latvians have looked far from a threat in their first two games, and appear to be at that point where they are ‘playing for pride’ in place of actual winning expectation.
The Swedes are 2-0, on the back of a 4-2 win over the Czechs, and a 1-0 victory in a dogfight with the Swiss. They are doing this all, mind you, without the services of superstars like Henrik Sedin, Johan Frazen, and now, much to the chagrin of their collective gold medal hopes, captain Henrik Zetterberg.
Zetterberg was sent home from the Olympics on Friday night with what is being called a ‘sports hernia’ injury. This should be considered nothing less than a crushing blow to the Swedes, as not only was Zetterberg their emotional and off-ice leader, he was also their very best offensive performer. His absence leaves a considerable gap down the heart of the Swedish attack, which will be filled by a platoon of players who will be in a ‘trial by fire scenario’, starting Saturday.
One of those players is Washington Capitals star Nicklas Backstrom, who was expected to be a top offensive performer for the Swedes entering the tournament. As the pivot man for league-leading scorer Alex Ovechkin (Russia), Backstrom has some of the very best assist and point-per-game numbers of anyone on the national team. In Sochi thusfar, he has been largely non-existent; he has 0 goals and 2 shots in two games. Without the buffer of Zetterberg in front of him in the first line center position, the onus falls on Backstrom to be ‘the man’ for the Swedes. They will sink or swim with how he performs in what are sure to be heavy minutes from here on out.
With a first round bye and a 3-0 record all but guaranteed, look for the Swedes to try different combinations at forward position. One place where they are strong and unwavering though, is on defense, where the superstar pairing of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Erik Karlsson has looked, to this point in the tournament, like the best in the world. Karlsson is considered the best offensive defenseman in the game, while Ekman-Larsson is a sublime two-zone blueliner, whose defensive responsiblity acts as the perfect counterpoint to the roaming Karlsson. The Swedes may try a reserve or two in the game against Latvia, but figure that they will continue to ride this world-beating defensive duo until that horse pulls up lame.
The Latvians were never considered a real threat in these Olympics, but they are a feisty bunch, a fact they have put on full display in their first two contests. They gamely fought the Swiss through 59 minutes of scoreless hockey in game one, before a last minute winner for the Swiss allowed them to eke out a 1-0 victory. They also showed up and competed for 60 minutes against the Czechs on Friday, losing 4-2 but, again, looking respectable in the process.
The Latvian MVP in the tournament to this point has been goaltender Edgars Masalskis, who has seen a ton of rubber, and turned the vast majority of it away. In two games, he has faced 78 shots, saving 73 of them, including a sublime 38 save performance against the Swiss on Wednesday. There is a definite feeling among the Latvians that, with him on top of his game, they stand a real chance to pull of an upset or two before the tournament’s over. Though there are limited standings implications from the game on Saturday, an injured Swedish team which is likely to rest some of its stars represents an opportunity to shock the world. If they are to manage that, Masalskis will be an enormous reason why.
The Latvians best positional player to this point in the tournament has probably been winger Mikelis Redlihs, who is showing well in his first Olympic games. Still, with limited offensive skill, the Latvians are relying on guys like Redlihs and Zemgus Girgensons, guys who are better suited to two-zone defensive roles, for big-time offensive production. This is an unfortunate situation to be in, as it further compounds the offensive problems they have felt in their first two contests.
Even if they rest guys like Sedin, Lundqvist, Alfredsson and Steen, the Swedes shouldn’t be considered an upset risk here. They have a deep defense that is playing lights out right now, and their B team is more than able to handle a shallow Latvian club.
The one thing the Latvians have going for them is the play of Masalskis, who has been a revelation in his first true display on the world stage. He will look to continue his solid play through Saturday’s game and, though a win is extremely unlikely, he will hope that a good performance here can segue into something better, perhaps that much sought after Olympic upset, in the Qualification playoff round that kicks off on Tuesday.