For most of us the days before Christmas are spent buying presents and decorating the house for the holiday season. Not the players and coaching staff of the ten World Junior Championships teams. They use any minute they can get to get accustomed to the conditions in the host city, getting the ideal line combinations in place and practicing specific plays in their quest for hardware.
The 2008 WJC is being held in the Czech Republic cities of Liberec and Pardubice. That second name might sound familiar to WJC fans. Back in 2002 it was in Pardubice that Russia defeated Canada 5-4 in a thrilling final in the CEZ Arena. The Russian roster was strong as it bolstered the likes of Alexander Frolov, Igor Grigorenko, Fedor Tyutin, Denis Grebeshkov, Alexander Svitov, Stanislav Chistov, Alexander Perezhogin and Andrei Taratukhin.
The Canadian team on their end was anything but poor either. Almost six years later, nearly all players have been playing in the NHL including first liners like Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester, Rick Nash and Brad Boyes.
Both Canada and Russia are still considered top favorites for this year’s WJC, but there will be stiff competition as the exhibition games proved.
Although still a notch behind the Canadians, it seems like the pack that will play for spots 2-6 is more competitive than ever.
On Friday, Nordic rivals Finland and Sweden met for an exhibition game in the idyllic village of Litomysl. The 420 visitors who expected a friendly game were quickly proven wrong. Both teams clearly did not want to lose this Nordic affair resulting in relative physical game that ended with 17 minors and two misconduct penalties.
Unlike recent years, the Swedes were physically stronger than the Finns and were also applying a pleasant offensive tactic that is based on smooth skating and speed. Finland was forced back into its own zone and had trouble building up plays as the Swedes pressed forward early on giving the Finns only chances via the breakaway.
Other than their swift skating and smooth passing, this Swedish team doesn’t leave the opportunity to fire on net when the space is there. Opposition goaltending therefore should not be afraid to be falling sleep. Luckily for the Finns backup goaltender Harri Sateri was awake and kept his team in the game.
The Swedes were not to be denied though. After Harri Pesonen had leveled the teams when tipping in a rebound behind Jhonas Enroth (BUF), they took a commanding 3-1 lead thanks to goals of Oscar Eklund and Robin Figren (NYI).
Finland on their end were given a helping hand late on the second period. Skating 5-on-3 they made it a one-goal game with just eight seconds left to play when Joonas Kemppainen hit home on the rebound. Within two minutes of the third period, Kemppainen tied the game when he connected on a sharp cross ice pass from Sakari Salminen.
The Swedish energetic game seemed to have taken the best of them in the final period as their smooth passing game of the first two periods was no longer visible. Nevertheless justice was served as they won the game 5-3. Patrik Lundh scored the game-winning goal before an empty net goal by Mikael Backlund (CAL) put the nail on the coffin for Finland.
Having dominated most of the game the Swedes deserved the victory and could even afford to miss a penalty shot, taken by Mario Kempe. The 2007 Philadelphia Flyers fifth-round draft pick was stoned by the Finnish goaltender but could look back at a good game. His agility was unmatched and he established himself as a true playmaker on this Swedish team often demanding the puck from his defenseman to start the attacking waves of yellow and blue.
Enroth was solid for Sweden in net, but should work on controlling his rebounds. Although not entirely to his account it cost his team a couple of goals which could have been avoided.
Los Angeles’ second-round draft pick Oscar Moller remained scoreless this games but is expected to log major minutes during the WJC. He will be used on both the power play (on a line including Patrik Berglund (STL) and Johan Alcen) and the penalty killing lines.
The fact that the Finns were unable to deal with the Swedish forechecking should be a reason for concern for the coaching staff. The Finns who ended in sixth place last year would like to rebound from that result having been accustomed to play for the medals the past decade. Sweden’s play showed their third place last year wasn’t a fluke and early indications has them right up in the pack for medal contention.
Boxscore: Sweden – Finland 5-3 [1-0;2-2;2-1]
08:29 1-0 Joakim Andersson (Robin Figren)
24:27 1-1 Harri Pesonen (Sakari Salminen)
28:30 2-1 Oscar Eklund (Jonathan Carlsson)
36:46 3-1 Robin Figren (Tomas Larsson)
39:52 3-2 Joonas Kemppainen (Mikko Kousa) PP2
41:44 3-3 Joonas Kemppainen (Sakari Salminen)
43:31 4-3 Patrik Lundh (Carl Hagelin)
59:13 5-3 Mikael Backlund EN