Sweden's hopes lifted with Lundqvist's resurgence
SOCHI -- The Swedes might have been wondering if their gold-medal expectations were too high had the opening of the men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics been scheduled for early last month instead of Wednesday.
Henrik Lundqvist was scuffling in net and struggling to help the New York Rangers stay above water in the improving Metropolitan Division. He was having a poor season not only by his standards, but even by the standards typically set for an average NHL goalie, certainly one who hasn't been a Vezina Trophy winner and a repeat finalist.
He was never seriously in jeopardy of losing his job as Sweden's No. 1 goalie, but the thought of playing in the Olympics was so hard for Lundqvist to fathom at the time because of how engrossed he was in trying to solve the riddle that had become his surprisingly erratic play in a season that appeared close to going off the rails.
"My mindset was never to be prepared for this [the Olympics], my mindset was to get back as soon as I could to the level I know I can play at," Lundqvist said after practice Tuesday. "That was my only focus."
2014 Winter Olympics
Group A: Russia (RUS), Slovakia (SVK), United States (USA), Slovenia (SLO)
Group B: Finland (FIN), Canada (CAN), Norway (NOR), Austria (AUT)
Group C: Czech Republic (CZE), Sweden (SWE), Switzerland (SUI), Latvia (LAT)
Preliminary round: Feb. 12-16
Qualification playoff: Feb. 18
Quarterfinals: Feb. 19
Semifinals: Feb. 21
Bronze medal game: Feb. 22
Gold-medal game: Feb. 23
The Rangers benefitted from Lundqvist's focus by heading into the break on a tear that put them on solid footing in the Stanley Cup Playoff race. Now it's Sweden's turn to reap the rewards, starting Wednesday when the long-awaited and highly-anticipated Olympic tournament finally opens with the four teams in Group C scheduled to play.
Lundqvist will be in net for Sweden against Jaromir Jagr and his Czech Republic teammates at Bolshoy Ice Dome (noon ET, USA); at the same time Switzerland will be playing Latvia at Shayba Arena (noon ET, MSNBC).
Jagr, who is still a dangerous player in the NHL, now with the New Jersey Devils, is starting his fifth Olympics, one fewer than Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne, Finland's captain here.
Switzerland nearly upset Canada in 2010 and is hoping to find a way to play spoiler again in Sochi. The Swiss are coming off a second-place finish at the 2013 IIHF World Championship.
Latvia, led by coach Ted Nolan of the Buffalo Sabres, is making its fourth straight appearance in the Olympics but hoping to avoid finishing in last place as it did in the previous two. The Latvians haven't won an Olympic hockey game since 2002, but they did take the Czechs to overtime before losing, 3-2, in the qualification round four years ago.
Groups A (Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia and United States) and B (Austria, Canada, Finland and Norway) get underway Thursday.
For now, the Swedes and Lundqvist are the focus because it's possible the path to the gold medal will go right through them.
"He's going to be the best goalie here, I have no doubt about that," Sweden defenseman Niklas Kronwall said of Lundqvist. "He's shown it before and hopefully he's going to do it again."
Lundqvist, who helped carry Sweden to a gold-medal performance at the 2006 Torino Olympics, is confident he can do it again largely because of how he had been playing coming into the tournament.
He went 10-2-1 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .930 save percentage from Jan. 6 to Feb. 7. He not only improved his record to 22-18-3, but his GAA dipped from 2.78 to 2.44 and his save percentage rose from .905 to .918.
The Rangers went from being fifth in the division with 44 points to second with 67 points, one more than the Philadelphia Flyers and four more than the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals.
"I don't think us players ever doubted him," Sweden captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "Every time we come here for the national team he plays well. He got us to gold in Turin and he played well in Vancouver too. We never doubted him. I think it was more of the media people that saw his game, how he was with the Rangers at the start, but it's not just him. The whole team had a tough start. They had a lot of injuries."
Lundqvist said last month that he was able to turn his season around by focusing on the smaller details of his game, such as playing deeper in his crease, where he is most comfortable. He realized he was challenging shooters too often, an aggressive play that was taking him out of his comfort zone. Once he started to play with more patience he started to play much better.
He said that patience will be tested in the Olympics because of the caliber of opponent. How he fares in that test will likely determine Sweden's chances of winning another gold with Lundqvist in its net.
"I wait for the shots, but it's always tough to be patient when you face good players," Lundqvist said. "You get anxious. You want to make the first move sometimes. But on big ice, they come wider. The small ice is straight ahead. It's different. You have to get used to it. I don't know if it's tougher, but it's different."
The size of the ice (15 feet wider than in the NHL) is not necessarily a concern for Lundqvist, but it is a factor in his relatively reasonable personal expectations heading into the tournament.
Lundqvist is not expecting his timing to be spot on Wednesday against the Czechs or Friday against Latvia. He hopes to be there by the time the Swedes play Switzerland on Saturday.
Then again, Lundqvist is never one to admit that he is spot on. He doesn't even let himself think it.
It's a mental game he plays with himself to make sure his level of play can still rise even in games when it appears he's at his very best.
"Technically I feel good, but mentally, I guess when you feel like you're on top of it, I think you lose it pretty fast," Lundqvist said. "But I feel good coming here. The key now is to not overthink it. When you feel good you don't overthink it, you just go out and play your game. But you start fresh here, so you have to start building something here and don't rely on what you've been doing the last five or six weeks."
However, if Lundqvist plays the way he has been playing recently for the Rangers, the Swedes may very well find themselves at the top of the medal stand come Feb. 23.
Their chances looked pretty grim early last month.