Sweden hopes for more hockey gold

Members of Sweden’s Olympic hockey team politely insist that even though they have 13 holdovers from the squad that won gold at Turin and will supplement that group with a crop of brilliant youngsters, they’re hardly a sure shot to repeat as champions in Vancouver.

“I don’t know if we’ll be considered the favorite no matter what we do,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “I think Canada and Russia are the ones that people are talking about the most.”

Tomas Holmstrom, his Detroit teammate, agreed.

“It’s not going to be the easy road,” the gritty forward said. “A lot of teams are packed with star players. Canada, Russia, the U.S., they’re all going to be good teams.”

Team captain Nicklas Lidstrom, the imperturbable defenseman who has been a pillar of strength for the Red Wings and Team Sweden, dismissed the notion that the Tre Kronor -- so named because of the three crowns on the front of the team’s jerseys -- will be overconfident when the tournament begins Feb. 16.

“I think we like our situation that we’re not one of the main favorites. I think that suits us well,” said Lidstrom, one of nine Swedes and only 22 players ever whose resume includes a title at the Olympics, the world championships and the Stanley Cup finals.

“Even though we’re going to be the defending Olympic champs, I think the pressure will still be on the top two teams, Russia and Canada.”

Their modesty is genuine, though unnecessary.

Sweden will take a formidable team to Vancouver and might very well finish atop the medal stand again, though a month or so ago that seemed impossible.

Vancouver Canucks left wing Daniel Sedin had a broken foot, and there was no telling how his twin and linemate, Henrik, would fare alone. Kronwall was recovering from a knee injury, Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson was nursing a sore shoulder, Holmstrom was out of Detroit’s lineup for nearly a month because of a fractured left foot, and supremely talented Detroit center Henrik Zetterberg had a shoulder injury.

And there was Peter Forsberg’s latest infirmity to worry about. The persistent foot problems that drove him out of the NHL and into a brief retirement. The rib injury that idled him after he rejoined the Swedish team Modo and has limited him to 15 Elite League games.

The Swedes playing in North America have been monitoring his progress via the Internet because they know that Forsberg, who played on Sweden’s gold medal teams in 1994 and 2006, can still be a difference-maker.

“It’s tough to know where he’s going to be. That’s a big question mark there,” Holmstrom said. “I really hope he can hold up and get his body back in shape because it’s going to go fast out there.”

With the exception of Forsberg, who has resumed training, and Kronwall, who returned to Detroit’s lineup but tweaked his knee and is out again, Sweden has a fit and fearsome team.

The Detroit quartet of Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Kronwall and Zetterberg form the team’s core, with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. But the team boasts other powerful leaders in four-time Olympians Alfredsson, who has seven goals and 16 points in 10 games since he returned from his shoulder injury, and defenseman Mattias Ohlund, who has been mentoring future Olympian Victor Hedman with Tampa Bay.

Sweden is deep enough to not miss stalwarts Mats Sundin and Kenny Jonsson.

Henrik Sedin added new dimensions to his game during his brother’s absence, becoming more of a shooter without sacrificing his playmaking. He’s second in the NHL in assists, with 53, and in points, with 78.

Center Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals, an Olympic newcomer at 22, is among the NHL leaders with 46 assists and 71 points. Atlanta defenseman Tobias Enstrom, also a first-time Olympian, has a career-high 40 points. Another newly minted Olympic defenseman, Douglas Murray of San Jose, is among the NHL leaders in hits with 161.

“There’s a lot of things that have to click in that 10-day or two-week span to be able to go the whole way, but we definitely feel like we have a great team going and we’re looking forward to the whole Games,” Kronwall said.

“We believe in ourselves. We feel like we have a strong team going there. But once again I think the defensive part is what’s going to win us games. We have really strong goaltending and can be really good in our own end and if we can take care of that, I think the offense will come.”

And with it, maybe, a second straight championship.