Nylander, starring this season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, was the highest returning scorer from the 2015 World Juniors (10 points). Kempe, also in the top 10 overall, wasn't far behind (eight points).
In the Group A opener at the Helsinki Ice Hall, the Swiss apparently had not gotten the memo that hits to the head are no longer acceptable in hockey – not in the NHL and certainly not in IIHF play. Defenceman Fabian Heldner and forward Chris Egli were both penalized in the first period for that offence – and Kempe wasn't even hurt until the second period.
Of Egli's hit on Nylander, Kempe said: "I saw it was a blind-side. That’s sad for the team and for him too. He’s a really skilled player, a really good player, and really important for our team. I don’t know what to say."
Hellbent on trying to stifle the Swedes with physicality, the Swiss looked more intent at times upon running around than playing hockey. Rikard Gronborg, the Swedish coach, accused his opponents of "head-hunting" and said his team was just trying to survive the game.
"We wanted to play physical," said Swiss captain Timo Meier. "Obviously, you know, we didn’t want to injure any players. We wanted to play hockey, we wanted to win that game. Obviously those two hits that happened weren’t on purpose."
Dmytro Timashov paced the Swedes with two goals, and William Nylander, Oscar Lindblom, Rasmus Asplund, Jakob Forbacka Karlsson, Jacob Larsson, and Adam Ollas Mattsson added singles. Alexander Nylander contributed three assists.
But the Juniorkronorna would happily have given all those goals back to get through this game in good health.
Sweden’s 2016 championship bid could be in jeopardy due to mounting injuries. They entered these World Juniors without two top defencemen, Sebastian Aho and Gustav Forsling. Aho is out for the tournament after getting hit in the larynx with a puck during a 7-6 exhibition loss to Canada. Forsling did not play in the opener due to an undisclosed injury.
Tino Kessler scored twice and Noah Rod had the other goal for Switzerland.
Starting goalie Linus Soderstrom got the win for Sweden, which outshot the Swiss 39-18.
The Swiss had a glorious chance to open the scoring in the first minute, but Soderstrom foiled Kessler on a breakaway with a right-pad save. The Swedes drew first blood at 1:21, as William Nylander circled the Swiss net and whacked in a feed from his brother Alexander.
Near the five-minute mark, Heldner cut Joel Eriksson Ek’s mouth with a high hit in the neutral zone. The result was a five-minute major for checking to the head and a game misconduct. However, the Swiss defended tenaciously and Sweden couldn’t generate any serious chances.
Just after the man advantage expired, Holmstrom and Lindblom did some spadework around Descloux’s crease, and Lindblom shoveled home a backhand at 10:17 for a 2-0 lead.
At 15:37, Egli caught a circling William Nylander with a huge blind-side hit at center ice and was ejected – again for checking to the head. Nylander got up shaken, and would not return to action.
"I think they know that he’s one of the best players in the tournament, maybe the best one," said Timashov. "I think they knew what they did. I don’t know. I hope he gets back."
With the teams playing four-a-side, the Swiss capitalized on an odd-man rush. Soderstrom got a piece of Denis Malgin’s quick shot with his glove, but couldn’t corral it, and Kessler batted the puck into the gaping cage at 17:23.
Sweden regained its two-goal edge just 2:08 later. Alexander Nylander sent a beautiful, diagonal cross-ice pass to Timashov in the right faceoff circle, and he whipped one over Swiss goalie Gauthier Descloux’s glove.
A scrum along the boards broke out at the end of the first, reflecting the dislike building up between the two teams.
"We were a little bit careful after those hits, but we still played our game and kept on scoring," said Timashov.
Just 1:48 into the middle frame, Timashov stretched Sweden’s edge to 4-1 with another power play marker. He danced around the perimeter of the zone and then threw a high wrister down the middle that beat Descloux to the blocker side.
Asplund made it 5-1 Sweden at 4:17, beating Descloux with another long, high zinger, this time to the glove side.
At 7:11, the Swiss cut the deficit to 5-2 when Rod went to the net and smartly deflected Edson Harlacher’s wrister from the side boards through a screened Soderstrom.
Past the midway point, Switzerland’s Calvin Thurkauf jolted Kempe with a hit from behind deep in the Swiss end. Kempe also left the game, although no penalty was assessed on the play.
"I lost my balance there just before he hit me," said Kempe. "You always get those kinds of hits in the game. So I got my head into the glass right there. But I feel good now."
At 12:50, Forbacka Karlsson put Sweden up by four, stealing the puck in the neutral zone, cutting in from the left side, and tucking it past Descloux on the forehand. That was it for the Swiss starter, who was yanked in favor of Joren van Pottelberghe.
Late in the period, Switzerland’s Damien Riat inadvertently bloodied a linesman’s hand with his stick when he bashed defenceman Marcus Pettersson over the edge of the Swedish bench. It was symptomatic of how the game unfolded for the Swiss.
In the third period, Larsson put Sweden up 7-2 at 2:34 with a rising center point drive.
Kessler got a shorthanded breakaway goal with 8:03 left to make it 7-3.
Late in the third, Malgin was sent off after taking multiple shots at William Lagesson after a wrestling match, in a sequence that summed up the spirit of this game.
Ollas Mattsson rounded out the scoring at 8-3 at 16:40.
"We played pretty good as a team, and it went pretty good for me," said Timashov. "We just followed the game plan and we won the game. So it feels good."
Sweden is questing for its third gold medal of all time, having previously prevailed in 1981 and 2012. The Swedes, who finished fourth last year, have earned a medal of some shade at six of the last eight World Juniors.
Switzerland came ninth in 2015, its worst finish since 2008 (ninth), and is looking to improve on that result. The Swiss have only medaled once at the World Juniors (bronze, 1998).
On Sunday, the Swiss will face Denmark, while Sweden takes on the U.S. on Monday.
"We want to learn from our mistakes that we made," said Meier. "Obviously, it’s tough losing 8-3, but at the end of the day, we just lost one game. We’re going back to it tomorrow, and we want to prepare now for the game tomorrow. It’s a long tournament."
The last time Switzerland beat Sweden at the World Juniors was on January 4, 2003 in Halifax. The Juniorkronorna have now defeated the Swiss seven straight times at this tournament.