BERN, Switzerland — It’s time to meet “The Monster.”
Canada will face Sweden and its highly touted goaltender Jonas Gustavsson in today’s semifinal at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
The six-foot-three Swede, dubbed “The Monster” while helping Farjestads win the Swedish title this spring, is an unknown quantity for a group of Canadian players that has never faced him.
Following a 4-2 quarter-final victory over Latvia on Thursday, questions to Canadian players about Gustavsson were met mostly with blank stares.
“I don’t think about goalies,” said forward Dany Heatley, before adding: “But I’m not trying to make headlines.”
Gustavsson has done a pretty good job of that on his own. The 23-year-old started the season as a backup in the Swedish league and is now being pursued by as many as 15 NHL teams, with many suggesting he’s likely to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs following the world championship.
In the meantime, his focus remains on helping Sweden win a gold medal. He’s glad that the path will have to go through Canada.
“Of course it’s big for me,” said Gustavsson. “It’s maybe the best team in the world. They always have good players on the team. They have a good tradition.
“It’s going to be fun.”
It will be the fourth straight year the teams have met in the semifinal. Canada came out on top the last two years — eventually winning gold in 2007 and silver in 2008 — while Sweden won a tight game in 2006 on the way to its last world championship.
One parallel to this Swedish team and the one that took gold three years ago is that the rosters are largely comprised of young players and guys from the domestic league.
“We know that they’ve got a group of guys over here that have played together quite a bit,” said Canadian captain Shane Doan. “They don’t have as many NHL players so we don’t necessarily know their names.”
Today’s game (TSN, 12:15 p.m.) should be a big test for a Canadian team that is still trying to find its top gear. Even though it has won six of its seven games at the tournament, there is a sense in the dressing room that the team can still get better.
They had trouble finding any early rhythm against the determined Latvians and were kept from scoring in the opening 20 minutes for the first time in the tournament. On the positive side, they found a way to answer that challenge by opening the game up in the second period.
“Shane Doan came in the room and said it: ‘Let’s not get frustrated and even if we are frustrated a little bit, let’s not show it,”’ said forward Derek Roy.
“I thought the guys did a great job responding,” he added.
Dan Hamhuis finished with a goal and an assist on Thursday while Heatley, Steven Stamkos and Matthew Lombardi also scored for Canada.
Guntis Galvins and Herberts Vasiljevs replied for the Latvians.
The tiny Baltic country is still seeking its first appearance in the semifinals and its first win over Canada at the world championship. However, this game did include some small victories — Latvia did a good job defensively and was the first team to score short-handed against the Canada at this year’s event.
They also briefly got within a goal in the final period after Vasiljevs beat goaltender Chris Mason with a high shot.
While Canadian coach Lindy Ruff admitted that he had some uneasy moments during the game, all that mattered in the end was the positive result.
“After two periods, we were where we wanted to be but we couldn’t put them away,” said Ruff. “Coming into the tournament, somebody said to me: ’Don’t be disappointed if you win 4-2 sometimes. Or 3-2.’
“There’s tight games you’re going to play in and there’s teams that are just going to play back, not going to give you high quality (chances).”