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Canada, Russia top seeds as World quarters begin

by Tal Pinchevsky

In the 56 games waged in the preliminary round of the 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championship, teams provided tightly-contested matches, emphatic blowouts, and everything in between, as a field of 16 national teams was whittled down to eight quarterfinalists.

But in a unique tournament twist, these quarterfinals will be intra-group matchups, meaning that every meeting will be a rematch from the preliminary round. With this departure from previous World Championship tournaments, which usually pit teams from separate groups against one another in the quarterfinals, games that were already intriguing just got a lot more interesting.

The quarterfinals begin on Thursday. Here's a capsule look at what fans have in store:

Stockholm Group

Russia (1) vs. Norway (4)

Nobody is expecting an upset between the undefeated Russians and upstart Norwegians, but this could very well be the most exciting quarterfinal game. For one thing, it will feature the two highest-scoring players of the preliminary round in Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Thoresen, who finished the round-robin segment with 14 points in his last four games.


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Norway's 33 goals in the preliminary round were easily the most of any team in the Stockholm Group, but 27 of those goals came against Latvia, Germany, Denmark, and Italy -- the four teams that failed to qualify for the playoff round. That scoring pace isn't likely to continue against the Russians, who allowed only eight goals in their seven preliminary-round games, easily the lowest total in the tournament. Playing behind a blue-line corps made up primarily of KHL veterans, Semyon Varlamov posted a .947 save percentage, third-best in the tournament.

To its credit, Norway played the Russians tough in their preliminary matchup, losing 4-2 in a game that saw the Norwegians keep things close by scoring twice on the power play. Despite being outshot 46-21, Norway never let the game get out of hand. At least until Malkin took over the game for Russia, assisting on Nikolai Kulemin's winner before setting up Alexander Perezhogin's insurance marker early in the third period.

In order to have a chance in the quarterfinal, Norway will need to severely cut down Russia's shot total, a tall order considering the reinforcements arriving in Stockholm. With Malkin already leading a high-caliber Russian squad, the national team announced on Sunday that Washington Capitals stars Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin would be arriving in time to join their countrymen for the tournament quarterfinal.

Sweden (2) vs. Czech Republic (3)

If the first Stockholm matchup pits two high-flying teams, the other quarterfinal features two more low-key squads who have relied on tight checking and low scoring instead of an all-out offensive attack. Only the Russians allowed fewer goals in the preliminary round than the Czechs, while Sweden allowed two or fewer goals in five of its seven games. But this matchup could come down to how the Czech Republic's stout goaltending fares against Sweden's star-studded top line.

They may not have put up the gaudy statistics of Malkin or Thoresen, but the combination of Loui Eriksson and Henrik Zetterberg was among the most consistent of the opening round. Both players finished among the top five in tournament scoring, combining for 23 points in seven games. Meanwhile, Jakub Kovar proved to be just as adept at stopping goals as the Swedish duo was at scoring them. The Czech goaltender finished among the top five in the tournament with a 1.47 goals-against average and .943 save percentage.

In their preliminary matchup on May 5, Sweden dominated from the beginning, with Johan Franzen opening the scoring early and the Swedes cruising to a 4-1 victory. If there are any positives for the Czechs to gain from that loss, it was that Kovar did not play in net, instead giving way to Jakub Stepanek.

In order to repeat that first performance against the Czechs, Sweden will need a healthy Franzen, who was a consistent tournament force before breaking his nose in a 7-3 loss to Russia. Franzen did not play in Sweden's next game against Italy, but returned to the top line alongside Eriksson and Zetterberg against Latvia.

Helsinki Group

Canada (1) vs. Slovakia (4)

The Canadians' offense dominated throughout the World Championship, scoring a tournament-high 35 goals, but they'll be up against one of the tournament's stingiest teams in their quest to win their first World title since 2007.

While a number of teams feature high-octane offenses, no team had a more balanced scoring attack than Canada, which boasted 11 players with two or more goals, easily the most in the tournament. And while young players like John Tavares, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Evander Kane have provided scoring punch, it's been veteran defenseman Duncan Keith who has quarterbacked Canada's charge with 10 assists, among the highest totals in the entire tournament.

Slovakia, on the other hand, relied primarily on its stingy defense, led by all-world blueliner Zdeno Chara. But the true heart of the Slovakian defense is goaltender Jan Laco, who was among the tournament's elite with a 1.20 goals-against average and .948 save percentage.

The two teams appeared evenly matched when they met on the first day of the tournament, a 3-2 Canada win in which they outshot the Slovaks by a 30-22 margin.

In the almost two weeks since that game was played, both teams have tried to find their identity at the tournament. Canada got big goals and strong defense throughout the tourney, with their only loss coming in overtime against the Americans in a back-and-forth affair on May 5. During that time, Slovakia became one of the most enigmatic teams in competition, topping the United States 4-2 but having trouble beating tournament also-rans like Kazakhstan and France. Against the Kazakhs, a team headed for relegation after going winless and finishing with a tourney-worst minus-33 goal differential, Slovakia needed goals late in the third period to pull out a 4-2 win.

Finding the pulse of the Slovakian team may be difficult, but they'll have to clamp down defensively and get a standout performance from Laco if they hope to advance. For Canada, a third straight quarterfinal loss simply won't be acceptable.

U.S.A. (2) vs. Finland (3)

Of all the quarterfinal matchups, none may be more compelling than the meeting between these teams. In what may have been the most shocking result of the entire tournament, the Americans crushed the defending champion Finns 5-0 on Sunday.

While both teams have a legitimate shot at winning the Worlds, they both proved to be incredibly inconsistent as the tournament progressed. The Americans looked like absolute world-beaters in big wins over Canada and the Finns, but then looked lackluster in a loss to Slovakia.

Troubling as the Slovakia loss was, it may have been a small setback compared to the United States' victory over lowly Kazakhstan. Against the tournament's worst team, the United States needed Justin Faulk's goal with 22 seconds remaining in overtime to secure the win. That overtime loss gave the Kazakhs their only point of the preliminary round.

The Finns weren't any easier to pin down as a team. They looked unbeatable in their first four games, allowing a measly three goals combined. But they followed that dominant run with back-to-back losses to Canada and the United States, being outscored 10-3 in the process.

If they want to have a chance against the United States, the Finns will have to recapture the dominating defense that led them to championship gold last year. That could prove difficult against a high-powered American offense that has found production from several sources, including Bobby Ryan and Faulk, who led the team with four goals each. But the real lynchpin behind the U.S. offense is winger Max Pacioretty, who had a point in every game and ranks in the top five in tournament scoring.

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