SOCHI, RUSSIA - Hey, no hard feelings, Ottawa Senators fans, but Erik Karlsson has no problem breaking your Canadian hearts.
The Norris Trophy-winning defenceman is out to win a gold medal Sunday for his native Sweden and knows Canadian Senators fans will be cheering against him, for one day, anyway.
“That’s fair. It’s nation against nation and I don’t hold any grudges against anybody cheering for their own country,” said Karlsson, whose dazzling play at the Olympic tournament had him near the top of the tournament scoring leaderboard.
Karlsson has personified what became a trend at these Olympics. With goals so hard to come by -- Canada had scored just 14 in five games and just five in their last three -- getting offence from the defence has been critical. Countries like Norway and Latvia, realizing they cannot match the skill of a Canada or Sweden, have been collapsing bodies around the net. That’s opened a little room for the defencemen and guys such as Karlsson and Canada's Drew Doughty have been taking advantage.
It’s no coincidence the gold-medal game matches up the two countries with the most skilled, mobile and deepest groups of blueliners.
“I don’t know if that’s a knock on offence or very good defencemen,” said Sweden’s Daniel Alfredsson. “I think that’s been the theme in this tournament.”
Karlsson has four goals and four assists and Doughty has been right there, too, with four goals to lead Canada.
Coming up with a plan to keep those guys from having an influence on the game is a goal for both coaches in a head-to-head matchup.
Hockey Night in Canada’s Don Cherry coached Bobby Orr and never saw anybody shut down his offensive defenceman — “Get in there that he 46 goals and 89 assists and was plus-123 his last year,” said Grapes — but he noted what the New York Rangers did against Karlsson in their playoff series against Ottawa in 2012, holding him to just one goal in seven games.
“What they did in New York, they went and had somebody stand with him, right beside him the whole time. What can you do? You have to be on him all the time,” said Cherry on Saturday as he watched Canada go through its final preparations.
“If he’s out on the point, you have to be very aware when he’s on the ice at all times. With him, you have to have that left winger out there all the time.”
There are two theories on how to handle defencemen like Karlsson and Doughty.
You throw the puck into their corner and go after them physically, pounding them if you can and take some starch out of them.
Or you keep the puck away from them.
On the big ice, it’s probably a better idea to keep the puck away from them, but a good strategy is to try and cycle the puck in Karlsson’s corner and make him defend.
“You’re not going to scare Karlsson or anything like that,” Cherry said. “You try and keep the puck away from him. He sneaks in like Doughty. He’s the same way.”
Karlsson was a big topic of conversation in both camps in the lead up to Sunday’s gold medal game.
“He’s dangerous all over the ice,” said Team Canada forward Patrick Sharp. “Even when he’s in his defensive zone, it seems like on a switch he can turn it into offence. Two hundred feet away from our net he’s still a threat. He’s definitely a player that we’re all going to be focused on, but not just Karlsson, they have a number of guys on that back end and all four lines that can create offence at any time, so it’ll be a tough test.”
Alfredsson was Karlsson’s teammate with the Senators and knows first-hand what he can do. He sees a young player with unique talent which sometimes gets him in trouble.
We’ve seen his talent flourish at these Olympic Games, said Alfredsson, and don’t shackle it because of the odd mistake.
“When he’s on, it’s amazing. Even when he’s not, he’s always been that fast that he can recover most of the time,” said Alfredsson. “When you look at him and you think he’s only 23 years old, I think sometimes expectations are set too high and I hope he continues to evolve and try to be creative and set maybe new standards instead of just looking at ‘I’ve got to cut down on my mistakes.’
“I think his offence more than weighs out the rare mistakes he makes.”
DIFFERENT KIND OF BOSS
There might not be too more different guys behind the bench than Canada’s Mike Babcock and Sweden’s Par Marts.
Babcock is a clenched fist of a man, chin jutting as he launches words rather than simply says them.
Marts, 60, is bespectacled and soft spoken man with an almost erie calmness.
“Canadian and American coaches are determined. A different style from me, anyway,” said Marts, “but I’ve got no problem with that.”
Babcock preaches doing it longer and harder than the other guys and controls every detail of player preparation.
Marts hands over a lot of responsibility to the players.
“I want the players to take responsibility for their actions, for their performance. We give them stuff so they can perform well. That’s my style. I can’t act in another way.
“I try to give them the right conditions to perform. We’ve been talking about winning from the summer, August, when we met for the first time. Nothing else. We still got the chance. I want the players to go further now.”
What will be Sweden’s approach against Canada?
“Stay calm, try to let the guys go with the match plan we have, nothing different. Don’t panic. Next shift, next shift,” Marts said.
There’s been a lot of talk of Sweden’s victory over Canada in the 1994 Olympic gold-medal game after the famous Peter Forsberg goal, but Marts isn’t using that as inspiration.
“Of course I remember it, but I’m a dreamer,” he said. “I’m looking more ahead and looking for dreams than talking old memories. I don’t like that. I don’t even know who we played in that Olympics. I’m not interested in this. I want looking forward. That’s my style.”