The last time Sweden faced Latvia at the World Juniors was back in 2013. Armed with future NHL stars like Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Elias Lindholm, and Rickard Rackell, the Swedes won comfortably 5-1. Latvia endured 46 shots from the undefeated Swedes, the most the nation saw in that tournament in a single game. While Latvia has never won against the Nordic country, they also have never been shut out. In 2012, they managed to score four goals on 13 shots against Swedish goalie Johan Gustavsson, while Latvian Kristers Gudlevskis stopped 31 of 40 shots en route to a 9-4 final.
Nine years later, the two teams finally faced each other again, although the circumstances heading into the game were wildly different. It was the first appearance in a quarterfinal game for Latvia after winning their first ever World Junior game, defeating Czechia 5-2, while Sweden had struggled to compete for a full 60 minutes. Apart from their 3-2 loss against the USA, Latvia promised to be Sweden’s toughest competition thus far at the 2022 World Juniors.
Although Sweden came out on top, it was far closer than they would have liked, as the Latvians fought for every inch of ice, playing an intense, physical game, forcing turnovers and breakouts all game. Sweden, on the other hand, once again looked sluggish and was outworked by the plucky Latvians. Overall, it was not a strong showing by the Swedes, and despite the win, they will have their work cut out for them as they advance to the semi-finals on Friday.
Lysell Propels a Lackluster Offense
One of Sweden’s biggest struggles has been generating offence. The defence has been good at throwing shots at the net, but there’s often been no one to pick up the rebound, resulting in plenty of low-danger chances, but few that challenge the opposing goalie. However, one player that has been trying to get some high-danger chances and set up plays has been Fabian Lysell. He’s looked great all tournament, but against Latvia, he stood out as one of the only Swedes getting in front of the net with the puck. Without him, Sweden would not have scored their first goal; a failed wrap-around attempt by Lysell that sailed over to Isak Rosen, who capitalized on the fact that no one knew where the puck was and sent it cleanly over Latvian goalie Bruno Bruveris.
As the game progressed, Lysell was frequently the only Swedish player in the offensive zone, surrounded by Latvians. It’s not as though he’s the only dynamic presence on offence, but many of the forwards preferred to dump in the puck rather than carry it deep and wait for their team to catch up. Oskar Olausson was especially guilty of this, carrying the puck through the neutral zone only to chip it in for someone else to pick up. Oskar Magnusson, who emerged as a top contributor against the 3-2 win against Switzerland, often did the same thing, preferring to play more defensively in this game.
Sweden has plenty of good options to score, but so far, the defence has been allowed to shine the most, which makes me wonder if this is at the direction of head coach Tomas Montén. The Swedes have looked truly dangerous in just one game in 2022, that being their 6-0 win over the much weaker Austria, who finished in 10th place. In that game, however, they relied on Austria’s poor puckhandling and lack of skill to open up holes in their defence and then put the puck on the net. Those opportunities won’t present themselves as frequently in the semi-finals or beyond, so the forwards need to figure out how to create more high-danger chances in the future.
Sweden’s Defence Shows Major Need for Improvement
Not a lot went right for Sweden against Latvia. On top of their forward corps not providing enough offensive pressure, their defence gave plenty of opportunities to the Latvians to score and had to rush back to break up a play or rely on goalie Jesper Wallstedt to bail them out. Part of that could be because their top defender and quarterback Simon Edvinsson sat out of the game against Germany because of stomach issues, and subsequently played a more reduced role upon his return. Without him playing his best, the team lacked defensive pressure, and Latvia took advantage of it, scoring a fantastic goal halfway through the second period. In the below clip, three Swedes are scrambling in front of the net, giving Gustavs Ozolins plenty of space to shoot.
For a team that boasts seven NHL-draft prospects on their blue line, Sweden has not been all that dangerous. Apart from Leo Loof, their defence lacks physicality and is often getting pushed around by opponents. They move the puck decently well, but when faced with any sort of pressure, it almost always results in a turnover. To say it’s been an underwhelming showing from one of the best hockey nations in the world is an understatement. So much of their strategy has been built around patiently waiting for their opponent to make a mistake, but when those are few and far between, as they were against Latvia, Sweden struggled to do anything more than simply survive.
Andrae Looks Better Than Ever
However, it’s not all doom and gloom, as certain players have emerged as game breakers. Lysell is the clear choice up front, and while Edvinsson started out looking strong, he’s been completely overshadowed by Emil Andrae. A second-round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2020, he has emerged as the team’s biggest key to success from the defence. Over five games, he leads Sweden with four goals and eight points, which places him fifth in tournament scoring.
Andrae has shown that he can do anything he’s asked to do and more on this Swedish team. Despite being the shortest member of the team, he’s been one of the most physical, laying out big hits on even bigger opponents, something the Swedes have desperately needed more of. He’s shown off his excellent shot from the point on numerous occasions, but also has demonstrated a penchant for playmaking, carrying the puck up into the offensive zone when no one else is able or willing. He practically willed the Swedes to beat the Latvians, scoring the game-winner with just 10 minutes remaining in the game.
There is a reason he was named captain of this team, as every time he’s been on the ice his skill and leadership have been on full display. No matter what happens in the next stage of the tournament, Andrae will be front and center, propelling the Swedes forward.
What’s Next for Sweden?
With their win over Latvia, Sweden will now have to face either Switzerland or, much more likely, Canada, who has been dominant all tournament long. Mason McTavish leads the tournament with seven goals while Connor Bedard and Ridly Greig both have three apiece. That’s bad news for the Swedes, who only have 10 players with at least one goal and just four players with more. Canada, on the other hand, has had 13 players light the lamp for them, seven of which have done so multiple times. Wallstedt will have to be at his absolute best to withstand the onslaught if they face off against Canada, as he hasn’t been getting much support from the rest of his team thus far.
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An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.