The United States will look to become the first country in five years to win back-to-back gold medals when the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship takes center stage starting Dec. 26 in Malmo, Sweden.
Canada, the previous country to win consecutive gold medals (2005-09) will be one of nine other teams looking to squash the American dream of a repeat at the 11-day event, which concludes Jan. 5, 2014.
The Group A field, which consists of the United States, Canada, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany, will play preliminary-round games at 5,800-seat Malmo Isstadion.
"Playing on an Olympic rink is important for our guys," U.S. coach Don Lucia said. "It's not necessarily the same game on the big sheet versus the smaller sheet. Skating is going to be important, compete level is going to be extremely important. In that short tournament we have to get along and all fight for one thing, and that's USA Hockey."
Canada coach Brent Sutter returns after leading the country to undefeated gold medal-winning efforts in 2005 and 2006. He knows nothing will come easy for any of the 10 participating teams.
"There's so much parity with the junior hockey countries now," he said. "They've modeled themselves after the Canadians and they've caught up. Hockey fans in Canada don't give the other countries nearly enough credit. There's this perception that we're the only country that's great."
Canada hasn't won a gold medal at the WJC since 2009. At the 2013 WJC Canada finished fourth after a 6-5 overtime loss to Russia in the bronze-medal game. It marked the first time since 1998 that Canada failed to come home with a medal.
Here's a look at the teams in Group A (listed in order of 2013 WJC ranking):
Coach -- Don Lucia
Last year -- While it didn't look good on paper for United States coach Phil Housley following consecutive losses to Canada and Russia by identical 2-1 scores in preliminary-round play, the Americans went on to win their next four to win their third gold medal in tournament history. The U.S. defeated Czech Republic (7-0), Canada (5-1) and Sweden (3-1) in the medal round to secure its place in history.
2014 draft watch -- Boston College goalie Thatcher Demko is the lone A-rated player on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list for the 2014 NHL Draft to make the team. Demko is the youngest player in the NCAA ranks, and the native of San Diego, Calif., is 4-1-1 with a 2.31 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in six games.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Czech Republic, 11:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com); Dec. 28, Slovakia, 7:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com); Dec. 29, Germany, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com); Dec. 31, Canada, 11:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com).
Outlook -- The U.S. offers plenty of strength and quickness in all areas of the ice. The goaltending appears to be in good hands with Providence College sophomore Jon Gillies (Calgary Flames), the expected starter, with Demko and Anthony Stolarz of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League (Philadelphia Flyers) competing for the backup spot.
The youngest player on the roster is center Jack Eichel, a 2015 draft-eligible forward who plays for the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team. The 17-year-old, who is committed to Boston University in 2014-15, has 19 goals and 39 points in 22 games.
The Americans have established themselves internationally over the past few years to the point they are now considered annual gold-medal contenders. Lucia knows that strong defense and opportunistic offense are the keys to victory. His team is poised to continue the momentum built in Ufa at the 2013 WJC.
Coach -- Brent Sutter
Last year -- Canada failed to earn a medal after finishing preliminary-round play with a 4-0 mark. The successful start included wins against the United States and Russia while outscoring the opposition 21-8.
After receiving a bye to the semifinals, however, their gold-medal hopes came to an end at the hands of the Americans in a 5-1 loss in the semis. They followed that with a 6-5 overtime loss to Russia in the bronze-medal game, a loss that left Canada off the medal podium for the first time in 15 years.
2014 draft watch -- It wouldn't surprise anyone if center Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League and defenseman Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League were selected among the top five picks in 2014.
Reinhart, who has 16 goals and 50 points in 33 games, captained Canada to the gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. Ekblad, a 6-foot-3.5, 216-pound right-handed shot, was granted exceptional-player status by Hockey Canada to be eligible for the 2011 OHL draft as a 15-year-old. He captained Canada to the 2013 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka title in August and has 10 goals and 25 points in 29 games for the Colts.
It's also worth noting that the youngest player on the roster is 2015 draft-eligible center Connor McDavid, who also was granted exceptional-player status from Hockey Canada. The 6-foot, 185-pound left-handed shot will be the first 16-year-old to play for Canada at the WJC since Sidney Crosby in 2004. He has 12 goals and 50 points in 31 games for the Erie Otters of the OHL.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Germany, 7:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Czech Republic, 11:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Slovakia, 11:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, United States, 11:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com).
Outlook -- The Canadians are on a mission, as they are every year when this tournament rolls around. Sutter knows no team should be taken for granted and everyone needs to be playing their best hockey by the time the medal round commences Jan. 2.
Canada appears strong down the middle with Nicolas Petan, Bo Horvat, Scott Laughton and Connor McDavid projected to center the four lines. Griffin Reinhart is the best defenseman of the seven on the roster but will miss the opening three games of preliminary-round play while serving a suspension that carried over from the 2013 WJC.
Coach -- Miroslav Prerost
Last year -- The Czech Republic finished second in Group A in preliminary-round play in 2013, including a regulation win against Finland and an overtime victory against Switzerland. However, they finished fifth for the second straight year after a 7-0 loss to the United States in the quarterfinals.
2014 draft watch -- Two players who earned A ratings on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch will be part of the team, right wing David Pastrnak (Sodertalje) and center Jakub Vrana (Linkoping). Both skate for teams at the top level of Swedish hockey. Additionally, right wing Ondrej Kase of Chomutov in the Czech League is a B-rated prospect.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, United States, 11:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com); Dec. 28, Canada, 11:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Germany, 7:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Slovakia, 7:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook -- The Czech Republic has finished no higher than fifth the past eight years but the country is slowly turning the corner.
Expect goalie Marek Langhamer, a 2012 seventh-round pick (No. 184) of the Phoenix Coyotes, and forward Radek Faksa, taken by the Dallas Stars with the 13th pick of the 2012 draft, to play significant roles in the team's success.
Another player to keep tabs on is versatile 16-year-old forward Pavel Zacha, who isn't NHL draft eligible until 2015.
While the Czechs likely won’t challenge the United States or Canada for top honors, they should have enough talent to finish third in the group.
Coach -- Ernest Bokros
Last year -- The Slovaks placed fourth in Group B with three points, including an overtime win against Germany. Slovakia was outscored 19-10 in preliminary-round play and finished eighth.
2014 draft watch -- There is one C-rated player on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list on the Slovak roster, center Pavol Skalicky. The 6-foot-5, 180-pound right-handed shot has two goals, three points and 14 penalty minutes in 13 games for Slovakia's national under-20 team.
Slovakia also will have defenseman Erik Cernak, 16, on the roster. The 6-3 Cernak, who has two goals in 16 games with Slovakia’s national u-20 team, isn't eligible until the 2015 draft.
Schedule -- Dec. 27, Germany, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, United States, 7:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com); Dec. 30, Canada, 11:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Czech Republic, 7:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook -- Slovakia hasn't placed higher than sixth (2012) in four previous appearances at the World Junior Championship. The guess here is the team has enough talent to avoid relegation, but winning a medal is unlikely.
"The big games in the round robin will be versus big brothers Czech Republic and Germany and neither the Slovak league nor the Slovak junior league are as strong as they used to be," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "That has a big effect on the national teams."
Coach -- Ernst Hofner
Last year -- The Germans finished fifth in Group B with one point on an overtime loss to Slovakia. Germany was outscored 26-4 in preliminary-round action but did earn a 5-2 victory against Latvia to avoid relegation.
2014 draft watch -- Center Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League is an A-rated prospect on NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list and will play a huge role on the team. He ranks among the top 10 in the WHL with 51 points (18 goals, 33 assists) in 33 games. The 6-1.75, 208-pound left-shot center could be the second player from the WHL taken at the 2014 draft.
Right wing Parker Tuomie of the Wenatchee Wild of the North American Hockey League is a C-rated prospect and also could open some eyes. He has 12 goals and 30 points in 27 games.
Schedule -- Dec. 26, Canada, 7:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 27, Slovakia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, United States, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com); Dec. 30, Czech Republic, 7:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook -- There were 17 players on Germany's select camp roster playing in North American leagues.
Germany has found success in the WJC Division I pool but hasn’t done the same at the top level. The Germans likely will finish fifth in Group A and battle Norway in the best-of-three relegation round to hold onto a spot in the main draw for the 2015 WJC.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL
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