Back in early November, Oskar Lindblom must have been shaking his head as the Swedish Men’s National Team for the Karjala Cup was selected. He had done everything he possibly could to push his way into contention for the squad, and by the time replacements were chosen for injured players the young Swedish winger was the leading scorer amongst all Swedes in the SHL. The Karjala Cup ended up being embarrassing for Sweden. They were soundly beaten in all three games, while playing uninspiring hockey.
On the back of that disappointment, the squad for the Channel One Cup in Moscow was completely overhauled. Names that had been a given on the team-sheet were left out, and five unew players were called into the squad. The youngest of all selected was the Philadelphia Flyers very own Oskar Lindblom. He had gone from strength to strength since his snub last month, and at the time the team was picked was point per game – and still leading all Swedes in SHL scoring.
Today was Lindblom’s debut for the “Tre Kronor”. Playing for your nation is a big deal. In the run-up to the game Lindblom spoke about how playing for Sweden had been one of his biggest goals, along with playing in the NHL and winning the Le Mat Trophy – awarded to the SHL victors – with hometown team Brynäs.
The SHL is a good league, but the step-up to international level can be a steep one. Even at tournaments on the European Hockey Tour – of which the Channel One Cup is part of – where North American based stars are unavailable, and often top players are rested, the level can make good SHL, Liiga or Extraliga players look out of their depth.
It is easy to see why when you examine the rosters of the participants. Russia and Sweden have line-ups littered with ex-NHLers and ex-high end prospects, and Finland and the Czech Republic have several ex-NHLers on their teams alongside a host of KHL stars. Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, Sobotka, Sekáč, Omark, Rundblad, Ortio and Hartikainen are just some of names attending the Channel One Cup. Outside of the NHL, the EHT may well be the highest level of hockey in the world played ‘in-season’ this year, with the level somewhere in-between the NHL and KHL.
Today Sweden faced off against objectively the strongest team in the tournament – Russia. Their top line has two Hall of Fame caliber forwards on it, while their second line has the talented Dallas prospect Valeri Nichushkin. The rest of the team is made up of players who are amongst the best in the KHL. Names such as Sorokin, Ozhiganov, Tkachyov, Telegin, Babanov and Shalunov are there… players who will very likely play in the NHL, or be pursued by NHL teams, in the very near future. Despite this high-caliber opponent, Lindblom took it in his stride.
Even before the game there were signs that the 2014 fifth round pick would settle in pretty quickly at this level. Training with his Swedish international teammates over the last few days he quickly worked his way up onto the first line and top power play unit practice. That is no mean feat considering he beat out a few ex-NHLers for the top line role. His versatility was also on display. Despite playing almost exclusively at left wing over the last eighteen months for Brynäs, Sweden chose to place him at right wing – as the highly skilled KHL star and ex-Edmonton Oiler Linus Omark is a natural left wing and their biggest ‘star’ on the team.
Practice and games are different matters however. In the first period against Russia, Sweden were outplayed. Russia had numerous high percentage chances, and converted just before the period’s halfway mark to make the game 1-0. Lindblom’s first major piece of action in the game involved a nice backcheck and a well-timed interception on the edge of his own crease to deny a rebound scoring chance. Sweden rarely managed to establish any offensive zone possession in the first period, though Lindblom and his linemates did on two occasions make Russia’s defensemen do some work with nice cycles. After one period of play it looked like Sweden could be in for a pretty bad day.
But in the second period this was not the case. Momentum is often spoken about in hockey, and Lindblom and his linemates were a big reason the momentum of the game started to tip in their favor. Five minutes into the second period Sweden had their best chance of the game so far. Omark and Lindblom broke out together, with Omark carrying the puck through the neutral zone and over the blue line, Lindblom overlapped behind him and took a drop pass. The young Flyers prospect then eyed up a shot from the right circle, but instead slid the puck far post to rushing center Ryno, who forced a good save from Sorokin. From that moment on Sweden did not look back.
Only a few minutes later, on the first line’s next shiftm they established possession in the offensive zone with nice puck movement and strong forechecking. Omark took the puck on the left boards and flung it round the back of the net. Lindblom beat his man to the boards, and directed the puck between his own legs with a backhand pass to the net-front area. His center Ryno was driving to the crease as the play turned from innocuous to dangerous in a millisecond. But he could not get their first – instead the Russian defenseman scrambled in-front of him… and turned the puck into his own net with a skate-blade. Lindblom’s first game for Sweden, Lindblom’s first goal for Sweden. It may have been a ‘lucky’ bounce but the smart play from behind the net was deserving of such a bounce. Had the Russian defenseman not got to it it would have likely resulted in a Sweden goal anyway from the rushing center.
The remaining minutes in the second period were quiet, as the two sides eyed each other up, looking for holes and weaknesses. To start the third it immediately seemed like Sweden had figured Russia’s out. They hit them in the corners, forechecked hard, hustled and made them work. As a result the Three Crowns drew two penalties in the first half of the period. Lindblom came close to helping his team capitalise on both. During the first power play he picked out a loose puck from a scramble near the blue line and walked into the slot, firing high blocker. Sorokin was equal to it and batted the puck away. Just after the second power play expired, Lindblom turned creator. He made a nifty play on the right half-boards to direct the puck sweetly to ex-Flyers defenseman and Sweden captain Erik Gustafsson. “Gus” hustled to the edge of the slot from the blue-line uncontested and released a solid wrister on goal, forcing a nice save.
In the last two minutes what had seemed inevitable all period finally happened. Just after Lindblom had climbed over the boards after another nice shift Sweden once again established possesion in the offensive zone, and Lindblom’s linemate Omark, still on ice, directed a puck from the back boards to the rushing defenseman – ex-Flyer’s draft pick and fellow Brynäs player, Simon Bertilsson – who deposited it smartly past Sorokin. Sweden iced the game a minute later with an empty net goal.
All in all it was a fantastic debut for Lindblom. A goal, +1, and creator of three further chances for his team. Not bad considering that he saw significant minutes against the Russian first line of: Kovalchuk – Datsyuk – Plotnikov. His strength on the boards stood out against high-level competition, as did his two-way play and creativity. Lindblom and Sweden will play two more games in the tournament, on Saturday against arch-rivals Finland, and Sunday against the Czechs. If the big winger from Gävle can play as well as he did today going forward for Sweden that goal will be the first of many in a long international career.
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Sons of Penn Radio (December 16th)
On this week of SOP Radio, we assess the thrilling 10-game win streak, look at the dominant production from several of their top guns and foresee a fruitful future for the Orange and Black.
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