WJC2012: Zibanejad gives Swedish hockey ‘biggest win’ since Turin Olympics

CALGARY — Trettondedagen will have to wait. Friday is a holiday in Sweden designated for taking down Christmas trees and decorations, but it might also be used for sleeping in — the slumber of someone satisfied at long last — after the Tre Kronor ended its 31-year  gold medal drought at the World Junior Hockey Championship.

Other Swedish teams have had more talent and fallen short. This one found that urgency to finally exorcise the country's world junior hockey hex, turning some 18,000 fans at Scotiabank Saddledome into Swedes for a night. The fact it took 58 shots on brilliant Team Russia goalie Andrey Makarov, spread across more than 70 heart-in-mouth minutes when one error could have given Russia its opening, made it that much sweeter. One can only imagine what it was like back in Stockholm just before 5 a.m. local time when Mika Zibanejad, off a turnover by Nikita Kucherov, went in alone and deked Makarov for a 1-0 Sweden triumph. The nation's public television network SVT was expecting an audience of half a million people. They might have awakened another 500,000 people by cheering when Zibanejad scored.

"I just spoke to my boss and he said after the [2006] Olympics, this is the biggest win for Swedish hockey," coach Roger Rönnberg said, no doubt as emotionally drained as his dress shirt was drenched. "We have been so close so many times. We have to win the tournaments. This year we finally found a way. Last year in Buffalo I thought we actually played better hockey. But we learned it's not about playing nice hockey. It's about winning — finding a way to win."

Had the hurt

Sweden arrived in Alberta a bit under the radar, despite a lineup that boasted NHL first-rounders Jonas Brodin and Oscar Klefbom on the back end and Zibanejad and Rickard Rakell up front. It was like the way their 2011 world junior played out sent out a SOS — Same Old Swedes. They could be world-beaters early on but couldn't get it done in an elimination game. Beating Canada in a gripping New Year's Eve group game, then losing the semifinal to Russia and bronze-medal game to Team USA cemented that impression. But sometimes failures are gateways to success.

"In the group, we beat Canada and everyone was so happy about that," said captain Johan Larsson, standing in the media mix zone with a Swedish flag draped around his neck instead of the usual towel. "But in this tournament, we stayed much more focused. That game with Canada was the gold medal for us. We didn't have a great semifinal, but we were still up 3-2 against Russia with two minutes to play [before losing 4-3].

"We knew this was a really tough tournament to win. We're a team with character and hard work."

How tough is it to win? How thin is the margin between a gold medal and never heard of ya? Consider the fact Sweden is the third champion in four years who won the gold after coming within two minutes of being bounced to the bronze game in their semifinal contest, just like Russia last year and Canada in 2009, when Jordan Eberle scored that famous goal. Feel free to share that with the person in the next cubicle who still thinks Canada should win every year.

Sweden never led in any of its final three games. They overcame a three-goal deficit to beat Russia 4-3 in overtime on New Year's Eve to win Group A. Tuesday, they spotted Finland a two-goal lead before eventually pulling even when tournament all-star Max Friberg tallied with 1:44 left, then winning in the shootout. When Russia took out Canada, that made the Tre Kronor the crowd favourite.

"I never could have dreamt when we were going overseas that people would be cheering for us," Rönnberg said.

Facing a goalie in Makarov, the Saskatoon Blades netminder who was playing near his peak, held no terror for them. The same could not be said for Sweden backers who eyed the lopsided shot counter — 39-4 through the opening 40 minutes — and fretted that Sweden was leaving the game out there for the designated villain, Russia captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov, to snatch away and take home to Moscow.

"We still had faith and we knew we had to stick our game plan," said Rakell, who was robbed three times, including once on a third-period breakaway. "I don't how many times Makarov stopped me."

Russia, under crafty coach Valeri Bragin, almost seemed to be playing a rope-a-dope, just trying to lull Sweden to sleep before Kuznetsov, Kucherov, Nail Yakupov or Mikhail Grigorenko could work a little magic. It was like they were conserving energy after going through a draining 6-5 near-collapse against Canada 48 hours earlier and needing overtime to oust the Czech Republic in Monday's quarter-final. (The Czechs' Petr Mrazek, by the way, was voted the tourney's top goaltender.)

But Brodin and Klefbom helped lead a mostly airtight defence that limited Russia to 17 shots. The defending champs' best chance came late in in regulation, when Kuznetsov made a spinnerama on-the-pass to Nikita Gusev. But goalie Johan Gustafsson smothered the on-target deflection to preserve the 0-0 tie.

In a tourney where Canada and Russia used multiple goaltenders, that one save upheld Rönnberg's choice to stand by Gustafsson. The 19-year-old struggled early on in the tournament.

"He has the confidence and he's a true winner," Rönnberg said. "I was trusting him big-time because of his personality."

'Ugly faces' on '81 team

It is a little hard to put any big event in sports into perspective immediately. Big upsets don't seem so big with the benefit of hindsight; instant classics are found to have flaws. But Sweden can say in retiring one of hockey's great conundrums, how a nation that turns out NHL superstars such as Henrik Lundqvist, Daniel Sedin and Henrik Sedin, high draft picks and Olympic gold medal-winning team had been unable to win at the under-20 level. The Swedes' only previous title was in 1981. That was eight months before MTV went on the air. It was also the year before Hockey Canada started its Program of Excellence that made over the tournament's terrain.

Sweden knew about that dubious bit of history. They didn't run from it. They turned it inside-out, displaying the 1981 team photo in the dressing room.

"Thirty-one years, oh my God," said Klefbom, the happy-go-lucky Edmonton Oilers first-rounder who was named a tournament all-star. "We had not thought about it the whole tournament, but it was in our head. We have that [1981 team] picture — oh my God, ugly faces. But they're our heroes."

Sweden's win tonight was the byproduct of changes to its system which started in the early 2000s. Tonight was their breakthrough after a couple silver-medal finishes in recent years.

"We have worked 10 years with a new program in Sweden, developing players for the national team," Rönnberg said. "That's one part. We've worked with skills, we've worked with the summer camps. In Sweden, it's all about the [Elitserien] clubs. There's tremendous work being done in the clubs to give the guys the base they need."

The night belonged to the blue and gold, of course, but it was actually great from a Canadian perspective. There is always that concern that the world junior's runaway popularity in Canada inhibits it from becoming a truly worldly event. Yet there were people from Alberta chanting, "Go Sweden Go." The timing for the Swedes' triumph is pretty good, since the event will be held in Malmö in two years. There's some momentum to help the tournament get more traction in a European hockey hotbed.

"It's getting bigger and bigger than ever at home," Zibanejad said. "Now that we've won, that will help it even more."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: The Canadian Press).

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