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Canadians, Americans battle it out in Group B

by Bill Meltzer

The Columbus Blue Jackets captain, Rick Nash, will be one of the many NHL stars on the Team Canada's roster.
In Europe, the IIHF World Championships are the considered the culmination of the long hockey season. In North America, the tournament takes a backseat to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the hearts of players and fans alike. But this year, with the Worlds coming to Canadian home ice -- and Team Canada and Team USA playing in the same preliminary round pool -- the stakes are high.

For Canadians, there is always honor and pride at stake every time Team Canada takes the ice in a major tournament. But each and every move coach Ken Hitchcock and his players make will be even more intensely scrutinized than normal as the team begins its quest to defend last year’s gold medal and take gold for the fourth time in six years.

As far as Team USA is concerned, a medal of any kind would be a nice accomplishment. John Tortorella’s squad is filled with up-and-coming young talent, but on paper, doesn’t measure up to the depth and firepower of Canada or Group D favorite Russia.

The battle for the third and final playoff qualification spot from Group B will be between Latvia and Slovenia (promoted to the elite level after winning its Division I World Championship pool last spring). The fourth-place team will head to the relegation round, while the top three preliminary round-robin finishers will take on the top three from Group C (Finland, Slovakia, Germany and Norway) in medal-round qualifiers.

Unsurpassed depth on Canada

Among the world’s elite hockey countries, only Team Canada is capable of assembling a World Championship roster that could compete with some rival Olympic teams.  Even with many of Canada’s top players unavailable due to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, injury or personal matters, Hitchcock’s squad is loaded with talent.

One of Hitchcock’s biggest challenges will be getting his many offensive-minded players to buy into playing solid team defense. It’s an area where he has always excelled as a coach, but until a team gels on the ice, there are always question marks.

Up front, Canada can roll out four solid lines. Canada has compiled a formidable balance of established NHL stars (such as Dany Heatley, Martin St. Louis, Eric Staal, Rick Nash, Jason Spezza, Ryan Getzlaf, and Derek Roy), heart-and soul players (Shane Doan, Jamal Mayers), underrated talents (Patrick Sharp) and fast-rising youngsters (Jonathan Toews, Kyle Turris, Sam Gagner).

The back line features three of the NHL’s outstanding young offensive-minded defensemen in Jay Bouwmeester, Mike Green and Brent Burns. All of these players should add another dimension to the Canadian attack, especially on the power play. With the tournament being played on the smaller North American ice surface, the physical game that veteran Ed Jovanovski brings can also be effective, and he still has an offensive element to his game as well. Dan Hamhuis and Steve Staios will be called upon to play more strictly defensive roles.

In goal, Hitchcock may entrust the starting reins to a familiar player in Columbus Blue Jackets keeper Pascal Leclaire. He also has Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward (coming off an up-and-down season) and Mathieu Garon of the Edmonton Oilers at his disposal.

Youthful enthusiasm on Team USA

Team USA boasts some of the world's best talent under the age of 23, such as Calder Trophy finalist Patrick Kane.
In its 64 years of participation in the IIHF World Championships, Team USA has only won 16 medals, including bronze medals at the 1996 tournament in Austria and the 2004 event in the Czech Republic. Apart from the 1960 Olympics, which in that era doubled as the World Championships, Team USA hasn’t won gold since 1933 in the former Czechoslovakia.

The current installment of Team USA squad features plenty of youth and skill up front and size on the back line. Tortorella’s team is not as star-studded as some of the other likely medal-round contenders, but is not an opponent that most countries will be eager to face.

Up front, the Americans have proven 30-goal scoring talents in Zach Parise, Dustin Brown and Jason Pominville. The squad is also loaded with some of the hockey world’s best talent under the age of 23, including Calder Trophy finalist Patrick Kane, fast-rising Phoenix Coyotes rookie Peter Mueller and the inconsistent but dangerous Phil Kessel.

Just as importantly, Tortorella has a collection of role players who are already familiar with the tasks they’ll be asked to perform. For instance, two-way forward Jeff Halpern will be a key player in penalty-killing situations, while Lee Stempniak and David Backes proved last year that they could be effective players for Team USA.

On defense, Team USA does not currently have a proven power-play quarterback such as Brian Rafalski at its disposal. But Tom Gilbert should provide some punch from the blue line, and there’s still a solid and fairly young group in place with the likes of Paul Martin, Keith Ballard and Tim Gleason in the lineup. Matt Greene should bring a physical presence, while James Wisniewski adds both snarl and offensive potential.

Veteran Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas is likely to get tabbed as the Americans’ starting keeper. Former Philadelphia Flyers starter Robert Esche (who played in the Russian Super League this season for Ak Bars Kazan) is available to spell Thomas as is current Florida Panthers backup Craig Anderson.

Latvians rely on team unity

Former Florida Panther Janis Sprukts will provide some of the offensive firepower for Team Latvia.
Backed by some of the loudest and most passionate fans in the hockey world, Team Latvia often finds a way to hang tough against higher-ranked opposition. Last year’s 13th-place finisher at the World Championships and 10th-ranked country by the IIHF has recently been in something of a transitional period on its national team. The older generation of players which served the national team from the time of its independence until the early 2000s is now largely gone. A year ago, Latvia ended up in the relegation round, but handled the bottom teams in the field well.

The most recognizable players to North American fans are former Florida Panthers center Janis Sprukts (now with Finnish club Lukko Rauma) and former Florida, Atlanta Thrashers and Vancouver Canucks right wing Herberts Vasiljevs (now with the Krefeld Penguins of Germany’s DEL). Both will play important offensive roles on the Latvian team. Lauris Darzins, a Nashville Predators ninth round pick in 2003, excelled for Latvia in last year’s tournament, tallying a team high three goals and five points in six games.

Coach Olegs Znaroks may elect to split goaltending chores again between ageless veteran Sergejs Naumovs and Edgars Masalskis. Now with Belarusian club HK Gomel, Naumovs, 39, bounced around the North American minor leagues for years and has played for teams in seven countries. A year ago, he was outplayed at the Worlds by Masalskis, now 28, who won the only two games Latvia took in last year’s tourney.

A handful of other players have minor league experience in North America, including starting defensemen Rodrigo Lavins (now with Swedish team Södertälje SK) and Janis Anderson (HC Trinec of the Czech Extraliga).

Kopitar the featured attraction for Slovenia

All eyes will be on star Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar whenever his recently promoted Slovenian team takes the ice at the World Championships. A year ago, in the Division I Worlds, he nearly single-handedly assured his country’s return to the elite level by racking up 14 points in five games. The previous year, at the top level tourney in Riga, he had three goals and nine points in six games.

But even beyond Kopitar, Slovenian hockey has been on the rise in recent years. Two Slovenian teams – Olimpija Ljubljana and Acroni Jesenice – compete in Austria’s Erste Bank Liga and Olimpija nearly dethroned Red Bull Salzburg (one of the richest teams in Europe, featuring several former NHL players) for the championship. Almost all of the other players on Team Slovenia represent either Olimpija or Acroni.

Detroit Red Wings prospect Jan Mursak, who has been involved in the OHL playoffs with his Belleville Bulls club, is not currently available to the Slovenians.

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