After spoiling Canadian hockey fans with five straight gold medals at the IIHF World Junior Championship, the Canadian National Junior Team hasn't produced a memorable finish for its rabid followers the past three years.
First there was a 6-5 overtime loss to the United States in the 2010 gold-medal match in Saskatchewan, followed by an inexcusable meltdown in the third period against the Russians in the 2011 gold-medal game in Buffalo when Canada yielded five unanswered goals on 10 shots in a 5-3 defeat.
Last year marked the first time in 11 years Canada would not play for the gold medal at the 10-team competition after dropping a 6-5 semifinal decision to Russia in Calgary. Russia would lose to Sweden in overtime, 1-0, in the gold-medal game, while Canada took home the bronze with a 4-0 win over Finland.
One of the most memorable quotes following Russia's victory over Canada was provided by captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov.
"We just won, and that question [of who is the better team] has become clear, so we're stronger than Canada," Kuznetsov said. "We're happy. I'm glad that Canada will not win gold this year."
There's no question Canada would enjoy ending the heartache on Russian soil with this year's tournament held in Ufa.
Canada will join Russia, the United States, Slovakia and Germany in Group B at the 2013 WJC. Preliminary-round games start Wednesday at 7,950-seat Ufa Arena.
Here's a breakdown of the five teams competing in Group B. The top-seeded team from the group will earn a bye into the semifinals of the medal round. The second- and third-place teams play cross-over quarterfinal contests with Group A.
Coach: Steve Spott
Last year: Canada opened the scoring in every game of preliminary-round play en route to earning the top seed in Group B. In four victories, it outscored the opposition, 26-5, but was defeated by Russia in its first game of the medal round, 6-5. Canada earned the bronze medal by defeating Finland.
2013 NHL Draft watch: There are three draft-eligible players on the roster, which is a first for the Canadian National Junior Team. Linemates Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League are first-year eligible, and J.C. Lipon of the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League is in his final year of eligibility after being passed over in the past two drafts. MacKinnon and Drouin are rated No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among skaters in the QMJHL on Central Scouting's preliminary league list.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Germany, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Slovakia, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, United States, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Russia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook: The NHL work stoppage has enabled Canada to stockpile some exceptional assets. Take, for instance, the addition of Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who will serve as captain. In addition to the 2012 Calder Trophy runner-up, there's Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers), Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets), Ryan Strome (New York Islanders), Dougie Hamilton (Boston Bruins) and Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh Penguins). Forward Mark McNeill (Chicago Blackhawks) was a late addition when Charles Hudon (Montreal Canadiens) suffered an injury. Unlike last year's team, the Canadians are solid up the middle, but as has been the case in recent tournaments, goaltending -- Jordan Binnington (St. Louis Blues); Jake Paterson (Detroit Red Wings); Malcolm Subban (Boston Bruins) --
will make or break the team. Look for Canada to finish third in Group B.
Coach: Ernst Hofner
Last year: Germany is back in the top division after winning the gold medal in the Division I, Group A tournament. In five victories, the Germans outscored the opposition, 34-9.
2013 NHL Draft watch: There is one top prospect on the roster: Muskegon Lumberjacks forward Frederik Tiffels. The 6-foot, 185-pound wing is No. 25 in Central Scouting's ranking of United States Hockey League players. Tiffels spent some time this summer playing with the Under-20 German National Team, in addition to earning roles for the U-18, U-17 and U-16 German National squads in select tournaments.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Canada, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 27, United States, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Russia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Slovakia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook: In addition to Tiffels, the player to watch for the Germans is forward Tobias Rieder, who stars for the OHL's Kitchener Rangers and was a 2012 fourth-round draft pick (No. 114) of the Edmonton Oilers. The Germans have several players back from the squad that earned promotion, but no returning goaltenders, so anticipate a fifth-place finish in Group B.
Coach: Mikhail Varnakov
Last year: After an emotional victory over Canada in the semifinals of the medal round, Russia dropped that 1-0 decision to Sweden in the final. The Russians rallied for three straight medal-round victories against Finland, Sweden and Canada but couldn't solve Swedish goalie Johan Gustafsson, who stopped all 17 shots in his direction in the final. Russia finished second in Group A with three victories and a 4-3 overtime loss to Sweden, outscoring its foes, 23-5.
2013 NHL Draft watch: A number of top prospects will be featured, including forward Valeri Nichushkin. Nichushkin, a 6-foot-4, 196-pound right wing, is rated No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary ranking of Russian draft-eligible skaters.
"[Nichushkin] is a big, strong two-way winger," Central Scouting Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "He's tough to stop when driving to the net from either wing -- a defenseman's nightmare in one-on-one situations when at top speed. He handles the puck well in traffic, makes good decisions in those situations. [He] has a high overall skill level and moves well for a big guy, smooth hands, good playmaker."
Schedule: Dec. 26, Slovakia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, United States, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Germany, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Canada, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook: Edmonton Oilers prospect Nail Yakupov has a strong supporting cast around him with Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo Sabres), Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Alexander Khokhlachev (Boston Bruins). Offensive-defenseman Nikita Nesterov and goalie Andrei Vasilevski, highly regarded prospects of the Lightning, should play vital roles for the host country. Russia also has goalie Andrei Makarov (Buffalo Sabres) returning between the pipes. The star-studded lineup on home ice makes Russia the odds-on favorite to finish first in Group B.
"Russia is always strong and this year's team is as strong as the gold medal-winning group two years ago," Stubb said. "The goaltending is better now."
Coach: Ernest Bokros
Last year: The Slovaks finished sixth after placing third in Group A behind Sweden and Russia. The country dropped an 8-5 decision to Finland in the quarterfinals.
2013 NHL Draft watch: The top draft-eligible skater, according to Central Scouting's preliminary league rankings, is forward Marko Dano, who plays in the KHL for Slovan Bratislava and is rated seventh among skaters playing in Russia. According to Stubb, Dano is tops among the Slovaks and is a player who will surprise at this tournament.
"He has a good combination of speed, stick work and smarts," Stubb said. "He plays a steady, two-way game and gives a consistent effort on every shift."
Schedule: Dec. 26, Russia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Canada, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Germany, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, United States, 5 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook: The Slovaks offer a roster dominated by players from the Bratislava club team that plays several games in the elite league. The exception is defenseman Peter Ceresnák of the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes. He is the only player on the roster to be drafted by an NHL team. The 6-foot-3, 219-pound blueliner was selected by the New York Rangers in the sixth round (No. 172) in 2011. Look for Slovakia to finish fourth in Group B.
Coach: Phil Housley
Last year: The U.S. team is coming off a seventh-place finish, its worst showing since finishing eighth in 1999. An 11-3 victory over Denmark in its opening game was followed by losses to Finland (4-1), Czech Republic (5-2) and Canada (3-2). The Americans needed a 12-2 victory over Latvia in their opener of the relegation round in order to secure a position in the top division of this year's tournament.
2013 NHL Draft watch: There are two promising 2013 draft prospects on the roster: defenseman Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL and forward Ryan Hartman of the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL. Jones likely would have been a member of last year's team if not for a shoulder injury he sustained in the last exhibition game. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones is rated No. 1 among WHL skaters in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary league rankings. Over the summer, Jones (6-foot-3.5, 208 pounds) served as captain for the U.S. team at the World Under-18 Championship, totaling eight points in six games as the United States won the gold medal. Hartman is No. 11 among skaters in the OHL. The versatile 5-11, 187-pound forward made a big impression on the U.S. managerial team at training camp.
Schedule: Dec. 27, Germany, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Russia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Canada, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Slovakia, 5 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook: The only time last year's finish was even discussed during training camp was when the media inquired about it. The biggest difference in this year's group is the enthusiasm and energy each player is willing to exert every practice and each shift. The three returnees -- defenseman Jacob Trouba, forward J.T. Miller and goaltender John Gibson -- are ready to lead by example. Expect the Americans to rebound in a big way and earn a second-place finish in Group B.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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