Beat at own game

PAUL FRIESEN

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

PARDUBICE, Czech Republic -- Some will simply write it off as bad luck, freak bounces, whatever you want to call it.

Hogwash.

Team Canada's shocking 4-3 loss to Sweden at the World Junior Hockey Championship, here yesterday was much more than that.

Oh sure, the Swedes, who appeared dead and buried early in the third period, were the beneficiaries of a couple of goals that make you go, "Huh?"

This was pinball wizardry at its strangest: first a carom off the end boards, off the goalie and into the net, then a weak shot off a defenceman's skate and in.

Like that, a 2-0 Canadian lead had gone TILT, and bells began ringing in the heads of the heavily favoured Canucks. Alarm bells.

Behind the din and flashing red lights, though, the cold, hard truth is the Canadians were beaten at their own game, by a team every bit as gritty as any in red and white.

This was a Swedish team stocked not with Kent Nilssons, but Peter Forsbergs, all willing to crash the net, take a hit and deliver a few more. A lethal combination of size, finesse and intimidation.

Not that Team Canada was intimidated. It's just that this time the Swedes weren't either, despite an all-out Canadian assault that was as predictable as boiled wieners in a Pardubice breakfast buffet.

Coming out in their black jerseys for the first time, as if to emphasize the game plan, and starting the crash-and-bang line of Brandon Sutter, Stefan Legein and Zac Boychuk, the Canadians came out throwing their weight around for the first time in the tournament -- and had it thrown right back in their faces.

"I don't think we're behind Canada when it comes to the physical part," Sweden's Robin Figren said. "We showed that today. Look at Peter Forsberg. I guess we're all taking after him. We're working our asses off the whole game, showing up every shift."

Figren was the perfect example, sacrificing his body to crash the net in the third, shaking off a resulting shoulder injury and getting right back at it.

"It's our heart," he said. "Just some ice, and you're fine."

Wait a minute -- isn't that supposed to be Canada's game, its ace-in-the-hole when things like talent are equal?

This wasn't just another preliminary-round game -- this was basically for first place in the pool, and a bye into the semifinal. All the Swedes need is one more win, and it's all theirs.

Chances are the Canucks now face a gruelling road to gold: four games in six days, beginning tomorrow against Denmark and continuing with a Wednesday quarter-final few expected them to play.

NEVER-QUIT HUSTLE

"It's a tougher road for us now," captain Karl Alzner acknowledged. "It makes us that much more determined to prove that one loss, it shouldn't have happened, and we're not going to let it happen again."

The fluke bounces? Big deal. How many times have we seen Canada benefit from never-quit hustle, getting a break or two along the way?

"You have to have luck to win tournaments," is how Sweden's Mikael Backlund put it.

And sometimes you just manufacture it. You earn it.

The Swedes earned their breaks, and suddenly what was shaping up to be another World Junior dominated by the Maple Leaf -- Canada had won 20 straight games, dating back three-plus years -- has been thrown wide open.

That's three straight games in which the Canadians have looked beatable, by the way.

"When we get outplayed it's a dose of reality," Alzner said. "We've been outplayed a few minutes in this tournament. It's just right there in your face right now."

And it left quite the grin on the faces of 20 satisfied teenagers from Sweden, a smile that wasn't going away any time soon.

"Not for a couple of hours," Figren said. "Maybe when I start sleeping."


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