Karlsson helps Sweden top Czech Republic, 4-2, in Olympic opener
SOCHI -- Three thoughts on Sweden’s 4-2 victory over the Czech Republic in their Olympic men’s hockey opener Wednesday at Bolshoy Ice Palace.
1) The beauty of the wider international ice is Swedish defenseman Erik Karlsson has a bigger piece of paper on which to fingerpaint. He is liable go anywhere at any time, lugging the puck out of danger in the defensive zone and pinching in the offensive zone at every available opportunity. When Paul Maclean took over behind the bench in Ottawa, he wanted to make sure the daredevil D-man wasn’t playing “16 minutes for us and 12 for them.” Well, Swedish coach Par Mårts has liberated Karlsson, and the results are breathtaking. Karlsson drew a trip in his own zone and then scored on the delayed penalty with a shot from the right point that handcuffed Czech goalie Jakub Kovar for the first goal. Karlsson is playing with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, making this duo Sweden’s Glitter Twins. If they are not the best D-pair in the Olympics, they are the most thrilling. The pairing of go-go defensemen is uncommon -- often it’s one cowboy teamed with a stay-at-home guy -- but the impact was profound. Karlsson also pounded home a power-play drive from the point in the second period, Sweden’s fourth goal on 11 shots.
2) Czech coach Alois Hadamczik made some, ummm, curious decisions in building this team that is so relatively advanced in years that it takes its meals at 4:30 and asks for the two-for-one coupon. No Jiri Hudler here. No Radim Vrbata. No Roman Polak. But the oddest decision was to not dress Ondrej Pavelec and start him in goal. (Payback for not accepting an invitation two years ago to the world championships?) Pavelec, who will make his debut against Latvia, was a cipher early in the season for Winnipeg but seemed to have turned his game around after Paul Maurice was hired as coach. Kovar has been solid in the KHL -- he has a .934 save percentage and 1.91 goals against average this year for Yekatarinburg -- but he is not tested with the same quality of shots in that league. Maybe he is more at ease on the larger ice than the Jets goalie, but he certainly didn’t seem to be in the first period. He was beaten by a Karlsson drive off his glove -- Daniel Alfredsson screening -- and later gave up a short-sider to Patrik Berglund. That is known as being beaten to the AHL side, not the KHL side. A Henrik Zetterberg floater past his glove less than one minute into the second ended his night.
3) While Sweden is a co-favorite and represents a rugged way for the Czechs to dip their toe into a tough pool, it is sad to see one of the world powers wallowing in hard times. Jaromir Jagr remains a tower of power at 42 (on Saturday), using his J-Lo backside to fend off defensemen and create scoring chances. Jagr scored on a one-handed backhand in a little display of the old virtuosity; he is still better with one hand on the stick than most guys are with two. And 24-year-old Jakub Voracek is a top-shelf forward. But Czech dependence on older players such as Jagr and 42-year-old Nedved, exhumed for the tournament from the domestic league, is a reminder that the freshet of young stars has slowed to a trickle. The Czech Republic, backstopped by Dominik Hasek, won the first NHL era Olympic gold, beating Canada in a semifinal shootout and blanking Russia in the 1998 final. The country partied in Wenceslas Square in Prague, one of the greatest hockey celebrations any country has witnessed. Hold the confetti in 2014.