Sochi Olympics 2014: Sweden’s Young Guns Hold Off Veteran Czechs | Swiss Labour Past Latvia With Late Goal

Image courtesy of en.ria.ru.

Image courtesy of en.ria.ru.

Cue drum-roll…..the Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament at Sochi 2014 is officially underway, after months of tingling anticipation, speculation over which players would make each roster, concerns over the controversial location and even dramatic injuries to stars on the eve of the event…we made it.

Whilst Canada and the U.S have already begun their domination of the Women’s Ice Hockey tournament, the latter registering a thrilling 9-0 victory over Switzerland in their second contest; those watching marveling at the performance of the supremely talented Amanda Kessel, today the spotlight was shone firmly in the direction of Europe. Day One featured a mouth-watering clash between medal contenders Sweden and the ‘golden-oldies’ of the Czech Republic, whilst an improving young Switzerland team took on heavy underdogs Latvia.

Czech Republic 2 – 4  Sweden

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

The Czech Republic shocked everyone by starting Jakub Kovar instead of Winnipeg Jets’ goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, and upon reflection, I think it’s fair to say that decision didn’t really work out. This contest was essentially over after 24 minutes, and Sweden had showed the whole world why their blend of speed in transition, clinical finishing and sharp passing makes them a legitimate gold-medal threat.

Ottawa Senators’ defencemen Erik Karlsson opened the scoring during the first period on a delayed penalty, his slap-shot screened by bodies in the crease but Kovar, having got a piece of his glove to the puck, will feel he should have stopped the young star’s fizzing blast. St Louis Blues’ centre Patrik Berglund made it 2-0 after 13:17, a powerful rush down the left culminating in a stunning shot that beat Kovar’s blocker short-side.

Early in the second, the mobility of Sweden’s offense was running the Czech’s aging legs ragged; Steen, Landeskog, Ekman-Larsson proving elusive for their desperate opposition, who were forced into taking silly tripping penalties to stop the onslaught. It was soon 3-0, Detroit Red Wings’ captain Henrik Zetterberg picking up a loose puck and ending Kovar’s miserable night with a sharp finish; again expertly screened by an energetic Alex Steen.

Alexander Salak then entered the fray in relief, and was beat on the very first shot he faced. Erik Karlsson zinging yet another slap-shot on goal, finding the top corner for his second, leaving the newcomer with little chance at making the stop. But with the Swedes holding a commanding 4-0 lead, the tide suddenly turned.

Whether it was those in yellow and blue taking their foot of the gas or just Czech pride suddenly rearing its bountiful head, midway through the second, the New Jersey Devil connection struck twice to halve the deficit. First Marek Zidlicky stepped up on the rush before sending a beautiful shot into the roof of the net, leaving Henrik Lundqvist grasping at thin air, before NHL record-breaker and legendary forward Jaromir Jagr’s skillful rush to the outside ended with the 41-year old’s attempted centre awkwardly finding the bottom corner.

The third period was dominated by the Czechs, who time and time again found Lundqvist in their way, the New York Ranger making 15 stops of his 27 saves in the final period, defying a distinctly partisan Russian crowd. The Swedes also excellently killed three penalties to preserve their lead and besides clear-cut opportunities for Kaberle on a breakaway and Hemsky, who chose to pass rather than shoot, their fragility didn’t yield too much.

Credit must go to the Czech Republic for weathering an early Swedish storm that could have derailed their chances and to backup goaltender Salak, who played solidly to swing the momentum. They head into Friday’s contest with Latvia knowing that if they play as they did in the final 35-minutes of this opener, they can easily get their tournament back on track against the minnows. Sweden will be a little concerned at the way they faded in this one, but looked tremendous during the early stages and face an enigmatic Switzerland on Friday brimming with the confidence to completely blow them out of the water.

Latvia 0 – 1 Switzerland

Image courtesy of canada.com.

Image courtesy of canada.com.

This game almost featured a Cinderella shut-out for Latvia’s veteran goaltender Edgars Masalskis…almost. The 33-year old has appeared in 41 World Championship games and 5 at the Olympics, in which Latvia hold a 0-8-2 against the top-eight, but this was almost his finest hour.

He denied a dominant Swiss side over and over again, making 38 saves on the night, some of which simply beggared belief, including two-lateral stops which most thought were certain goals and a scintillating leg-stop on New Jersey Devils’ forward Damien Brunner.

So….to the player who burst his bubble, Nashville Predators’ prospect Simon Moser. Who, with only 7.9 seconds left in the final period, sent a speculative puck towards the net, only for it to take a freakish bounce off a Latvian defender before nestling in the goal; no more than the Swiss dominance deserved but tough luck for the battling HK Popard goaltender.

Truth be told, the 33-year old’s heroics were the only real highlight of this contest, with the Latvians content to put all their eggs in the ‘stop the Swiss scoring’ basket; which ultimately made for a stuttered game and although Ducks’ goaltender Jonas Hiller made 21 saves at the opposite end, on his birthday nonetheless, most were of the simplest variety.

Both of these teams will need to improve when they face tougher opposition in their second games on Friday, the Latvians will surely employ similar tactics against the Czech Republic and the Swiss will need to be far more clinical in front of goal, taking on an ominous Sweden team.

Follow Sam on Twitter, and whilst you’re at it, follow Ice Nation UK for all the best hockey talk.

Check out Chris Hext’s excellent Roster Analyses below and stay tuned for more Sochi coverage to come.

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