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World Hockey Championship Preview: Canada, Finland, Sweden look to be the favorites
The 2012 International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) World Hockey Championships opens today. This year’s event is co-hosted by Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden and looks to be a great opportunity for Team Canada to reclaim their spot atop the hockey world.
Ottawa - May 4, 2012 - The 2012 International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) World Hockey Championships opens today. This year’s event is co-hosted by Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden.
This year the IIHF introduces a new format for the World Championships. Gone is the previous format which included a 2nd round before the playoff round. This year’s tournament has 16 team split into 2 divisions of 8 teams. The 8 teams will play a round-robin schedule with the top four teams playing a quarterfinal round in their divisions. The semi-finals will see the top two teams in each division cross over to play one another.
The 16 teams are divided into two groups for the Preliminary Round. Group A consists of Finland, Canada, U.S.A., Slovakia, Switzerland, Belarus, France and Kazakhstan. Group B has Sweden, Russia, Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Italy, Norway and Denmark. The last place team in each division will be relegated.
GROUP A Favorites
Canada- Always one of the favorites in any international tournament, Team Canada boosts a line-up laden with NHL talent, despite missing some of the NHL’s best player’s who are either still playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs or who failed to commit to the championships this year.
Up front, Canada is led by young phenom John Tavares of the New York Islanders and Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers. Tavares finished 8th in NHL scoring with 31 goals, and 50 assists in 82 games. Eberle finished with 34 goals and 42 assists for 76 points in 76 games. Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks and Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks bring NHL Championship experience to the team.
On defence, Canada is led by veteran Jay Bouwmeester of the Calgary Flames and Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks, a former Stanley Cup Champion. The defence is big and mobile, however it will be interesting to see how they adapt to the larger ice surface. In nets, Canada should start Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes, another Stanley Cup champion. Devan Dubnyk should be the back-up.
Finland- The defending gold medal champions are playing host to this year’s tournament with all of their games being played in Helsinki at the Hartwell Arena. Most of the key personnel on last year’s gold medal team are returning making the Finns the odds on favorite to win the group.
The Finns will be led by captain Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild, who is back from last year. Last year the Finns had to deal with the lack of availability of its top NHL goaltenders. This year they have Dallas Stars standout NHL goaltender Kari Lehtonen in the nets, giving the Finns a solid back-end.
Finland also has help up front with the addition of Detroit Red Wings star Valterri Filppula. Filppula is coming off a career 28 goal, 66 point performance in the regular season. Filppula will be joined by Carolina Hurricanes standout Jussi Jokinen.
Last season standouts former New York Rangers forward Jarkko Immonen and top Minnesota prospect Mikael Granland will join the team.
On defence the Finns return three former NHL defenseman including Ossi Vaananen, Lasse Kukkonen and Janne Niskala.
U.S.A.- Like team Canada, the United States is laden with NHL players. The U.S. has a solid core of players led up front by Bobby Ryan of the Anaheim Ducks, Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche and Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens. The three players combined for 180 points on the season. However, the U.S. lacks depth up front as the scoring prowess drops off after these three.
On defence, the U.S. boasts one of the NHL’s top defencemen in Jack Johnson of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Alex Goligoski was a solid on the blue line for the Dallas Stars. As with the offence though, the defensive depth drops off after these two.
The U.S. is solid in nets, with NHL all-star Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings. Howard will carry the ball for the U.S. who will count on him if they want to make it deep into the tournament. The U.S. boosts some good talent in all three facets of the game and although they lack the depth, their team is loaded with NHL players. However, in previous tournaments the U.S. has not lived up to their ranking, so this time they could surprise a few people.
Slovakia- The Slovaks have not fared well of late in international competition and have dropped to #10 in the world rankings. They’ll try to improve on that ranking as the top 8 teams in the tournament will get a bye to the winter olympics in Sochi in 2014. Slovakia will have emotion on their sides as the team will be playing without captain Pavol Demitra who died in the Yaroslavl plane crash.
The Slovaks are led on defence by Boston Bruins captain and hulking defenceman Zedno Chara. The Slovaks are a much better team with him. He is joined on the blue line by Andrej Sekera of the Buffalo Sabres and Ivan Baranka of Spartak Moscow.
The biggest name among the forwards is former Buffalo Sabre Miroslav Satan, who is the only player here who was on the 2002 gold-medal winning Slovak team. He’ll be joined by Juraj Mikus, Marcel Hossa, and Branko Radivojevic as those with plenty of experience. Detroit Red Wings 2009 draft pick Tomas Tatar is being groomed by the Red Wings in Grand Rapids of the AHL. The 21-year-old left winger brings loads of talent, but little experience. The roster also includes a few players from the KHL and most others from Czech and Slovakian league teams. Tomas Surovy and Martin Cibak are well-known skaters who need to score some goals if the team will advance.
Perhaps the biggest weakness for the Slovaks is in nets, where all three goalies have a combined total of zero games played at the senior level. Peter Hamerlik, Julius Hudacek, and Jan Laco are all new to the World Championship, so it’s anyone’s guess which of the three might carry the load for the Slovaks. If the goaltending holds up, and some of the youthful talent plays well, then the Slovaks could surprise a few people.
Switzerland- Switzerland is the fourth-seeded team in its preliminary-round group, but lower-seeded opponents like Slovakia or Belarus will be eager to challenge the Swiss for a quarter-final birth while the Swiss hope to upset one of the big teams in turn: Canada, Finland and the United States.
The Swiss boast a roster with three NHL players on it. The team is led by 19 year old forward Nino Niederreiter of the New York Islanders. Niederreiter is joined by fellow Islander Mark Streit and Luca Sbisa of the Anaheim Ducks who both play on defence for the Swiss.
In fellow countryman Mark Streit, who captains both the Swiss national team and the Islanders, Niederreiter had a kind of mentor on Long Island who speaks the same language. Streit is another NHL player who joined the Swiss national team. The third one is Anaheim Ducks defenceman Luca Sbisa. The trio practised on one line that also included centre Andres Ambühl and winger Roman Wick, two players from the Swiss National League A who once tried their luck in North America.
Swiss fans are looking to Niederreiter and others to put pucks in the net. Offensive production has been a weakness of many Swiss national teams in the past. But as reflected by the recent success of the Swiss at the World Junior Championships, the country has a number of up and coming players to draw on.
Another interesting forward is Damien Brunner, who became the first Swiss-trained scoring leader in the National League A in 30 years and plans to sign with an NHL team after the World Championship. In a country known for producing world-class goalies and defencemen, players like Brunner and Niederreiter represent an opportunity to take the national team to the next level.
If exhibition games leading up to the World Championships are a sign, the Swiss are in fine form. The exhibition schedule started well as the Swiss defeated the Swedes in two exhibition games in Sweden. They then followed that up with a 2-1 shootout loss to Team Canada, after Canada’s Jordan Eberle tied the game with 0.8 seconds left.
Belarus, France and Kazakhstan should be fighting to avoid relegation in the round robin. Belarus appears to be the strongest of the three with Mikkhail Grabovski of the Toronto Maple Leafs leading the team. Belarus comprises 10 players who play together on the club team Dynamo Minsk including goaltender Andrei Mezin who has been directly responsible for the odd upset in the past. If there is anyone of these teams that could surprise, it would be Belarus.
France and Kazakhstan will face off on Sunday at noon in what could be the game that decides who will be relegated and who will stay for next year’s tournament.
GROUP B Favorites
Sweden- One of the two co-hosts of the tournament, the Swedes are loaded with talent and are clear favorites to win their group. No less than 14 players in their current squad are from the NHL, with another three players being former NHL’ers.
Up front the Swedes are led by Loui Eriksson of the Dallas Stars (71 points) and Henrik Zetterberg (69 points) of the Detroit Red Wings along with the veteran leadership of Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators. Offensive threats, Johan Franzen of Detroit and Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado give the Swedes one of the most potent and balanced offenses in the tournament.
On defence, the Swedes are led by the NHL’s top offensive defenceman Erik Karlsson, the leading defensive scorer and Norris trophy favorite. Along with Karlsson, the Swedes have veteran leadership with Niklas Kronwall of the Detroit Red Wings. Outside of Kronwall the defence is young and talented, but inexperienced.
The Swedes have Jonas Enroth, a surprise in the NHL this year with the Buffalo Sabres and veteran Viktor Fasth of AIK Stockholm. Enroth posted a 2.70 goals against average and a .917 save percentage in 27 games.
The Swedes have struggled in pre-tournament exhibition games, losing their last six in a row, including two to Switzerland. However, the Swedes have added a number of player’s who were playing in the first round of the NHL playoffs, so the current team has only been together for a few days and hasn’t had a chance to jell. They will get that on Friday when they open the tournament against Norway before facing the Czechs and Denmark.
Russia- The Russian squad has just 7 NHL’ers with the rest of the team being filled in by players from the KHL. Russia is strong up-front, with the NHL’s leading scorer Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins leading the way. Malkin led the NHL with 50 goals and 109 points. The Russians also have Pavel Datsyuk (67 points, +21 rating) of the Detroit Red Wings, Alexander Burmistrov of the Winnipeg Jets and Nikolai Kulemin of the Toronto Maple Leafs up front. The Russians also have former NHL’ers Yevgeni Kuzetsov and Nikolai Zherdev.
On defence the Russians are led by Alexei Yemelin of the Montreal Canadiens and former NHL’ers Dimitri Kalinin and Yevgeni Medvedev. However, most of the remaining defensive corps comes from the KHL and is unknown to the rest of the competition. The Russians appear to have less depth on their back line and this could be their Achilles heal.
In nets, the Russians have Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche. In 53 games for the Avalanche, Varlamov had an impressive 2.59 goals against average and .913 save percentage. The Russians are solid up front and in the nets, so they should be a legitimate threat to win the gold medal. Like Sweden, the Russians have struggled during pre-tournament exhibition games losing the lesser likes, like Latvia and Germany. However, Malkin and Datsuyk were not a part of the team during those games and the Russians have be known to take it easy during exhibition games, preferring not to tip-off the opposition in upcoming tournaments. Also, the Russians will have the added motivation of wanting to place high to get a good seeding for the Sochi Olympics.
Czech Republic- The Czechs finished second in a pre-tournament competition to the Finns, in which they beat both Sweden (5-3) and Russia (2-1), their two closest division rivals. It’s hard to imagine this team as a dark horse, but with the Swedes and Russians loaded with talent, the Czechs might be just where they want to be.
The lineup is not deep in NHL talent, with just 6 players calling the NHL home. Like the U.S., the Czechs are led up front by three standout NHL forwards in David Krejci of the Boston Bruins, Milan Michalek of the Ottawa Senators and Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens. Other NHL forwards include Michael Frolik (Chicago), Ales Hemsky (Edmonton) and Tomas Vincour (Dallas). Former NHL’ers Lukas Kaspar, Jiri Novotny, Petr Nedved and Petr Prucha give the Czechs so solid experience up front.
The Czechs biggest questions may come on defence where the team has no current or former NHL players. Although stocked with players from the KHL and Czech leagues, the question will be about their depth and goaltending.
Germany- The German’s completed their exhibition schedule with a 4-4 record which included winning the Skoda cup, although against weaker competition. In games leading up to the tournament they played both the Russians (4-3 win and 3-2 shootout loss) and the Czechs (3-2 OT loss and 3-2 shootout loss) tough.
The Germans are led by forward Marcel Goc of the Florida Panthers. Goc had 27 points and was a plus 5 for Florida this year and proved himself as being a strong two-way player. Goc is reunited with his brother Nikolai. The brothers last played in 2010, when Germany reached the bronze medal game on home ice. It was the best finish for the German team since reunification in 1990.
The club is made up mostly of players from the German elite hockey league. Modeled much like the German Bundesliga, most German players stay at home instead of travelling to other european countries to play, so the unity is strong amongst the German players, and judged by the exhibition results this team could surprise a few people.
On defence, the Germans are anchored by former NHL’er Christoph Schubert and Denis Reul. It’s hard to judge where this team will finish, but based on the results and the pool they are in they look like a solid choice to finish fourth and make it to the playoff round.
Latvia- If the German’s are to slip up, this will be the team to take their place in the playoff round. The Latvians have played well in their recent exhibition games winning a pair of games over France and splitting with the Russians. Although, all four games were played in Riga where the Latvians are often tough to handle.
The Latvians have only two players playing in North America right now, forward Kaspars Daugavins of the Ottawa Senators and defenseman Oskars Bartulis of the Adirondack Phantoms. The remainder of the squad is made up of mostly players from the KHL. The Latvians have 15 players on their squad from Dinamo Riga and are counting on the familiarity and camaraderie of those players to jell into a good team. Much like the Germans, the Latvians are banking on the fact that there players play together. Although, they should finish a solid 5th in the tournament, this team could go either way and should give some of the better team’s in the tournament a tough game.
Denmark, Norway and Italy should fight it out to avoid relegation. Of the three Norway is ranked the highest at 9th in the world, one spot ahead of Slovakia. In one of Norway’s most recent exhibition games they managed to beat Slovakia in a shoot out and they did play Finland tough in two exhibition games, losing 3-1 and 3-0.
It looks like it will come down to the game between Denmark and Italy to decide which team will be relegated.
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