By Lucas Aykroyd – IIHF.com
The Swedes will take on the winner of the USA-Russia quarter-final on Thursday. The result guarantees they will play for a medal for the 12th straight year.
“I think we still need another level or two coming up in the next games,” said Alexander Nylander. “We’ve just got to step it up and play playoff hockey.”
Fabian Zetterlund also scored for Sweden, and Tim Soderlund had two assists. Captain Martin Bodak scored both goals for Slovakia.
Sweden last medaled on home ice in Malmo in 2014 (silver) when Tomas Monten was an assistant coach. Now the 40-year-old is hoping to win gold in his second stint as head coach. The Swedes have only won gold twice before (1981, 2012).
In a showdown between two of the tournament’s top-performing goalies, Filip Gustavsson prevailed over Slovakia’s Roman Durny. Sweden outshot Slovakia 39-22.
Of Durny, Bodak said: “He was all the time outstanding in this tournament. He’s a really good guy in the locker room and on the ice.”
It was Sweden’s fourth quarter-final victory over Slovakia in the last five years, but it was a much tighter result than usual. The Juniorkronorna won 6-0 in 2014, 6-0 in 2016, and 8-3 in 2017.
The Slovaks’ last quarter-final victory was 3-0 over the Czech Republic in 2015, when they marched to an unexpected bronze medal in Montreal. Despite seeing their 2018 medal hopes go up in smoke, they can be proud of what they accomplished in Buffalo, including a 3-2 upset over the United States.
“We tried to play our best, and I think we played our best,” said Bodak. “A little luck was missing for us.”
You couldn’t fault Slovakia’s effort in this do-or-die affair, but Sweden had the skill to execute a little better. After getting injured against Switzerland and missing the final group game against Russia, forward Jens Boqvist returned to the Swedish lineup for this crucial victory.
Both teams rang shots off the goal post in the early going, and the Slovaks showed defensive tenacity to keep their opponents on the outside, blocking plenty of chances despite being outshot 13-4 in the first period.
However, in the middle frame, Sweden picked up the pace, getting offensive contributions from throughout its lineup.
Just nine seconds in, Lundestrom barged over the blue line into the slot and wristed home his first goal of the tournament.
Zetterlund made it 2-0 Sweden at 6:55, splitting the Slovak defence and tucking a backhand between Durny’s legs to complete a dazzling solo rush.
“I skated the puck into the offensive zone, took the backhand and went five-hole,” said Zetterlund.
As the period wore on, the Swedes also took it to Slovakia physically. Defenceman Timothy Liljegren crunched Viliam Cacho next to the Slovak bench, and Boqvist knocked Bodak down with an open-ice hit.
Top Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin was penalized for delay of game for flipping the puck over the glass in his end, and at 17:41, Bodak got some revenge. The Slovak captain stepped in off the right point and beat a screened Gustavsson on the short side to make it 2-1. The underdogs were still in it.
“I was trying to pass first far side, but I couldn’t because there was a player from Sweden,” said Bodak. “Then I saw our two players in front of the net and one Swedish guy. I tried to put it in the net and it went in, so I was really happy.”
To kick off the third period, Slovakia had a glorious opportunity with a two-man advantage for 1:44. Marian Studenic put one off the post from the slot, but the Slovaks failed to bulge the twine.
“We tried to pass and shoot as much as possible there,” Bodak said. “I got a shot and I broke my stick, so that was also unlucky. It was good play from us, but we just didn’t score a goal.”
“It was really big,” said Nylander. “Great job by our penalty-killers to not let them score. We just kept going from there.”
Lundestrom gave Sweden some breathing room with his second goal at 10:17. Soderlund found him all alone to Durny’s left, and the Lulea forward just had to slide the puck into the gaping net.
But Slovakia wasn’t done. Just 1:41 later, Bodak charged to the net to finish off a great line rush, putting the puck over Gustavsson’s glove to make it 3-2.
Durny foiled Lundestrom’s hat trick attempt from close range with under four minutes remaining. The Slovaks kept on coming hard, but the Swedes pressed right back and Slovakia couldn’t get its goalie out for the extra attacker. It was a gallant but doomed effort.
“In the game against Canada, we didn’t play well,” Bodak reflected. “We were a little bit scared or something. But otherwise, our game was pretty good. I’m happy and proud of my team. I think we should get to play in the semi-finals, but it’s hockey, you know?”
Slovakia’s three best players of the tournament were honored afterwards: Roman Durny, Martin Bodak, and Samuel Bucek.