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Patience paying off for Team Sweden

Lines, defense pairs able to build chemistry through stability at World Cup

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

TORONTO -- Coach Rikard Gronborg could have changed his mind on Team Sweden's lines and defense pairings after it finished its three World Cup of Hockey 2016 pretournament games. No one on the team would have blamed him either.

Team Sweden was coming off a 6-2 loss against Team Europe at Verizon Center, this after splitting two games against Team Finland in Europe. Some things were working, some were not. He wouldn't have been wrong to deviate from his plan.

That he didn't is a big reason why Team Sweden is still standing, preparing to play Team Europe in the semifinals at Air Canada Centre on Sunday (1 p.m. ET; ESPN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Save for a few injuries, Team Sweden's lines and defense pairs have been the same since the day it stepped foot on the ice in Gothenburg for the start of training camp. It went 1-1-1 in the pretournament schedule, but 2-0-1 in the preliminary round, the games that counted.

"They've been patient here with the lines and really believe in the lines and 'D' pairings," center Marcus Kruger said. "I think that's given us the stability that we need. You get to know your linemates. That's been good for us."

Video: NAT@SWE: Lundqvist stones MacKinnon in front

The only changes have been on the fourth line, from Rikard Rakell to Mikael Backlund to Patrik Berglund.

Rakell couldn't make it to Toronto because of an illness, so Backlund replaced him on the line with Gabriel Landeskog and Carl Soderberg. Backlund sustained a concussion in Team Sweden's 2-0 win against Team Finland on Tuesday, so Berglund replaced him.

Marcus Kruger also had to miss the last two pretournament games with an upper-body injury, but as soon as he returned he went right back to playing in between Carl Hagelin and Jakob Silfverberg.

The top two lines haven't been touched at all, with Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson skating together and Nicklas Backstrom centering Patric Hornqvist and Filip Forsberg.

The defense pairs have consistently been Erik Karlsson with Mattias Ekholm, Victor Hedman with Anton Stralman, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson with Niklas Hjalmarsson. Hampus Lindholm played one pretournament game in place of Ekholm, but that's it.

"I think it's great, actually," Backstrom said. "It takes a little time for every lineup, so it's good we've been practicing the same, sticking with the gameplan, sticking with the lines."

Backstrom's line is actually the perfect example of how Gronborg's patience paid off.

It was Team Sweden's worst line in its first pretournament game, a 3-2 overtime loss against Team Finland in Helsinki. It was Team Sweden's best line in the three preliminary round games, with two goals and four assists. The Sedins and Eriksson have combined for a goal and three assists.

"He's a patient coach," Backstrom said of Gronborg. "We sort of figured it out ourselves. That's good."

That was the plan from the start of training camp. Gronborg came in with set lines and defense pairs didn't believe deviating from them would be helpful because even though the World Cup is a short tournament he felt the players needed to be afforded the time to establish chemistry.

Even though Team Sweden may have struggled in the pretournament schedule, Gronborg still liked what he was seeing and didn't believe trying to re-establish chemistry with a different lineup when the games started to count was a good idea.

"You need to make sure everyone gets a little bit of time to work together before you start making decisions of changing," Gronborg said. "I don't necessarily think changing all the time is going to help.

"Stability of the lines, that they understand their role out there, understand how we're using them, different situations, I think that's very important."

Video: NAT@SWE: Backstrom scores on lucky deflection

The alternative could become disastrous. Team USA is the perfect example.

Team USA coach John Tortorella changed his lines almost daily, moving forwards up and down and in and out of the lineup. The players never had time to establish chemistry, they didn't produce nearly enough offense, and Team USA was eliminated after going 0-3-0 in the preliminary round.

"It's just a few games you play and I think it's better to just keep the lines and just improve every game," Eriksson said. "We've been together now for two and a half weeks so it makes it easier to adjust to each other. It's not good to mix it up in the middle of a tournament. It's better to keep it the same."

Especially for how Gronborg is deploying his lineup.

The Sedins and Eriksson have been used primarily in offensive zone situations. Backstrom's line has been used all over the ice and against other team's first or second lines.

Kruger's line has been primarily used in the defensive zone. It shutdown Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and Mark Scheifele after it got the assignment against Team North America's top line 10 minutes into the game Wednesday.

"That's the difference for us moving on or losing out," Henrik Sedin said. "If you don't have a coach that coaches that way for us we're not significantly better than other teams."

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