Over the course of the 2010-11 season, Dallas Stars and Team Sweden teammates Loui Eriksson and Nicklas Grossman experienced their share of disappointment. Both players have been productive on the ice, but the Stars' near-miss push for the playoffs, coupled with Eriksson and Grossman sustaining minor injuries at the 2011 World Championship in Slovakia, has made for a frustrating spring. With 95 points, the Stars tied an NHL record for the most points earned by a non-playoff team.
Grossman battled injuries all season, missing 23 games. A sprained knee ligament suffered in a March 19 shootout loss against Philadelphia forced the rugged defenseman out of action the rest of season. Although he rehabbed diligently, Grossman was not able to get back in the lineup in time to suit up for the Stars as their playoff fate came down to a final-day loss in Minnesota. He tweaked the knee again in the second game of the World Championship as Sweden downed Austria 2-0. Grossman did not play in Sweden's 6-2 win against the U.S., but is listed as day-to-day.
Eriksson, an NHL All-Star Game participant who was chosen this season by his peers as the most underrated player in the League, has 2 goals and 3 points in three games at the Worlds. He sustained a minor groin pull late in the game against the U.S. after lurching awkwardly as a result of a cross-check to the back. He missed practice Thursday but likely won't miss much game action. Sweden begins medal-round qualification play against France on Friday and then faces Switzerland on Sunday.
"It's much better than expected," team doctor Peter Strom told Swedish newspaper HockeyExpressen. "But groin injuries are tricky, and we have to be aware of that uncertainty. It's better to be safe than sorry to make sure he doesn't aggravate the injury. A day's rest can work wonders."
Sweden was supposed to have a third member of the Stars in its lineup for the Worlds, but checking-line forward Tom Wandell is out after sustaining a shoulder injury. The injury is not believed to be serious enough to affect his offseason preparations for Stars training camp.
Eriksson and Grossman are crucial components to a new-look version of Team Sweden. The roster has a decidedly younger composition of players than recent Swedish entries at the Worlds, and coach Par Marts has adopted a new, more aggressive forechecking scheme.
"It's an up-tempo style that's demanding but pretty fun to play," Eriksson told NHL.com prior to the start of the tournament. "I think it's well-suited to the way I play -- pressure the puck and play with a lot of support. It's an aggressive system."
Sweden was out of synch in the tournament opener against Norway. In a stunning upset, Norway emerged with a 5-4 shootout win. The game marked Norway's first victory over its Scandinavian neighbors at any level of hockey since the Norwegians began competing internationally in 1950. Over the last 61 years, Norway had managed one tie and 21 losses against Sweden at the senior and junior levels.
Following the loss to Norway, Sweden steadily has improved. In a workmanlike 3-0 win against Austria, Eriksson set up Niklas Persson (2 goals) for the game's first score and Sweden limited Austria to 23 shots on goalie Viktor Fasth. The only downside to the effort was the injury to Grossman, who hurt his knee after colliding with Magnus Paajarvi.
Sweden played even better against Team USA, breaking a 1-1 deadlock with a three-goal outburst in the second period. Patrik Berglund (2 goals) and Mattias Sjogren (1 goal, 2 assists) led the way for Sweden, while Fasth turned back 30 of 32 shots. As a result of the win, Sweden beat the U.S. for the top spot in their preliminary-round bracket (Group C). Norway also earned a qualification-round berth while Austria heads to the relegation round.
Moving forward, the healthy returns of Eriksson and Grossman will be important to Sweden's medal hopes. Coming off a 27-goal, 73-point season for the Stars, "Tre Kronor" heavily is counting on Eriksson to provide an offensive spark to a roster that otherwise is a combination of mid-grade talent and dynamic youngsters (such as Paajarvi and Mattias Tedenby), who remain a little short on major senior-level international experience.
An accomplished two-way player, Eriksson also plays an important defensive role at even-strength play as well as on the penalty kill.
Grossman, who formed an effective defense pairing in Dallas with Stephane Robidas, is being counted on for his size and reliable play in his own end of the ice. His frequent absence from the lineup was one of the reasons the Stars tumbled out of the playoffs after leading the Pacific Division at the All-Star break. Without Grossman, now-former Stars coach Marc Crawford played the undersized Alex Goligoski with the smallish Robidas and the pairing was not quite as effective from a defensive standpoint.
"It was frustrating not being able to play," Grossman said prior to his setback at the Worlds. "You always want to help your team, and the season was on the line for us. Unfortunately, time ran out before I was able to get back."
If Grossman can get back in the lineup -- and avoid another recurrence of his injury -- Sweden's blue line will be that much better. With most of Sweden's top defenseman currently playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team has turned to a group of younger players such as Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tim Erixon. Grossman arguably is the most accomplished defensive-minded defenseman on the unit.
Moving forward, the big question Team Sweden will not be how well it navigates the qualification round. Even without Eriksson and/or Grossman, Sweden should be able to make it to the medal-round quarterfinals. Thereafter, however, they will need all hands on deck for the single-elimination games at the end of the tournament.