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Finland faces challenge for World Juniors repeat

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

The Finland National Junior Team will look to become the first in seven years to win back-to-back gold medals when the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship takes center stage this week in Montreal and Toronto.

Canada was the most recent repeat champion, winning five straight golds between 2005 and 2009. They'll be one of nine other teams looking to deny the Finns a second straight gold medal at the 11-day event, which runs Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, 2015.

The Group A field, which consists of Finland, Canada, the United States, Slovakia and Germany, will play preliminary-round games at Bell Centre in Montreal.

The schedule-makers provided quite an offering for fans on opening day with the defending champion Finns playing against the United States at 3 p.m. ET (NHLN-US, NHL.com).

"If playing Finland doesn't catch your attention right from the get-go than I can't help you," U.S. coach Mark Osiecki said. "Knowing we are playing Finland definitely gets you focused and will help us in that area."

Osiecki, currently in his second season as an associate coach for the American Hockey League affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Rockford IceHogs, is using all his resources.

"I've been joking with the guys that with [Finland's Teuvo Teravainen and Ville Pokka] here in Rockford, we're trying to steal all the secrets and pick their brains to try and get the upper hand," Osiecki said.

Canada coach Benoit Groulx, meanwhile, has the unenviable task of bringing to an end the country's five-year gold-medal drought.

"We are very comfortable with the choices we made," Groulx said. "We tried to have a balance between skill, speed, strength and size. When you look at the roster, we have that."

Here is a look at the five teams in Group A.

CANADA

Coach: Benoit Groulx

Last year: Canada rebounded well after a 5-4 shootout loss to the Czech Republic in its second preliminary-round game on the way to earning the top seed in the group with 10 points (3-0-1). After a 4-1 win against Switzerland in the quarterfinal round, Canada lost 5-1 to eventual champion Finland in the semifinals. Canada than had its medal hopes ended by Russia for the second consecutive WJC with a 2-1 loss in the bronze-medal game. It also marked the fourth straight tournament in which Canada lost to Russia in the medal round: 5-3 in the 2011 gold-medal game, 6-5 in the semifinals in 2012 and 6-5 in overtime in the 2013 bronze-medal game.

2015 Draft watch: All eyes will be on center Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, who is projected by many to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. McDavid returned to game action Dec. 21 in an exhibition victory against Sweden after sitting five weeks with a broken bone in his right hand sustained Nov. 11. McDavid had one goal and four points in seven games for Canada at the 2014 WJC; he was the sixth 16-year-old to play for Canada at the event, joining Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Jason Spezza, Jay Bouwmeester and Wayne Gretzky. Also on the roster is left wing Lawson Crouse of the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. The 6-foot-4, 211-pound power forward might be one of the hardest hitters in his league.

Schedule: Dec. 26, Slovakia, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 27, Germany, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Finland, 8 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, United States, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).

Outlook: Canada will have the home-country support, but can goaltenders Zachary Fucale (Montreal Canadiens) and Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) step up to the challenge in their biggest tournament to date? The additions of forwards Anthony Duclair (New York Rangers) and Curtis Lazar (Ottawa Senators) on loan from their NHL teams was a huge bonus. The experienced Lazar will serve as captain. Canada cannot rely on just one or two point-producers, but instead show some measure of consistency throughout all four lines. The prediction here is Canada finishes first in Group A.

UNITED STATES

Coach: Mark Osiecki

Last year: The United States opened the tournament with three straight victories, outscoring the opposition 19-4, but lost 3-2 decision to Canada on New Year's Eve to finish second in Group A with nine points. A 5-3 loss to Russia in the quarterfinals eliminated the U.S. from medal contention for the second time in three years.

2015 Draft watch: Boston University freshman Jack Eichel is a potential top-two pick at the draft. He is averaging 1.69 points per game, a higher mark than Zach Parise (1.56) during his draft-eligible freshman season at the University of North Dakota in 2002-03. Eichel and defensemen Noah Hanifin (Boston College), Zach Werenski (University of Michigan) and Brandon Carlo (Tri-City, WHL) are A-rated skaters on the NHL Central Scouting players to watch list for the draft. The roster also includes forward Auston Matthews of the USNTDP, a 17-year-old native of Scottsdale, Ariz., who could be the top pick of the 2016 draft.

Schedule: Dec. 26, Finland, 3 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Germany, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Slovakia, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Canada, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).

Outlook: The challenge for Osiecki is having his team ready right from the start with Finland looming as the opening-day opponent. There are a lot of new faces throughout the lineup, but many were teammates on the gold medal-winning 2014 World Under-18 Championship in Finland in April. Eichel, who will serve as U.S. captain, had five goals and 10 points in seven games in that event. Look for the United States to finish second in Group A.

FINLAND

Coach: Hannu Jortikka

Last year: The Finns defeated Sweden 3-2 in overtime in the championship game to earn their third gold medal at the tournament and first since 1998. It marked the first medal of any kind for Finland since earning a bronze medal at the 2006 WJC in Vancouver. The loss also avenged a 4-2 loss to the Swedes in the preliminary round, which dropped the Finns into second place in Group B with seven points entering the playoff round. Finland defeated the Czech Republic (5-3), Canada (5-1) and then Sweden for the gold when defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (Buffalo Sabres) scored 9:42 into OT.

2015 Draft watch: Finland has one player considered by NHL Central Scouting as an A-rated prospect, right wing Mikko Rantanen, who is a regular on the second line with TPS in Liiga, Finland's top professional league. "He plays a mature game and works hard both ways; he has surprising mobility for a player his size (6-foot-3, 211 pounds)," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said. There are two B-rated skaters, right wing Sebastian Aho and left wing Roope Hintz. Additionally, right wing Jesse Puljujarvi, who starred for 2014 Liiga champion Karpat last season, earned a roster spot despite not being eligible until the 2016 draft. "[Puljujarvi] has the same scoring instincts and skill set as Aleksander Barkov (Florida Panthers)," Stubb said of the 16-year-old.

Schedule: Dec. 26, United States, 3 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Slovakia, 11 a.m. ET (NHLN-US, delay); Dec. 29, Canada, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Germany, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).

Outlook: Finland may have the strongest goaltending tandem in the tournament with incumbent starter Juuse Saros (Nashville Predators) and Ville Husso (St. Louis Blues). That and a formidable defense corps led by Julius Honka (Dallas Stars), along with plenty of speed up front, should push the defending gold medalist to a third-place finish in the group.

SLOVAKIA

Coach: Ernest Bokros

Last year: Slovakia has placed no higher than sixth at the WJC since 2009, when it finished fourth. At the 2014 WJC Slovakia beat Germany 9-2 for its only win on the way to an eighth-place finish. Sweden eliminated Slovakia from medal contention with a 6-0 victory in the quarterfinals.

2015 Draft watch: The roster features two players regarded as potential draft picks, right wing Radovan Bondra (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) and defenseman Erik Cernak (6-3, 192). Cernak is listed as a B-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list; Bondra is a C-rated skater.

Schedule: Dec. 26, Canada, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Finland, 11 a.m. (NHLN-US, delay); Dec. 29, United States, 4 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Germany, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).

Outlook: Slovakia has some talent on the roster and may be able to keep games close in the early stages, but it comes down to depth and strength along the blue line and Finland, Canada and the United States are just better. Look for Slovakia to finish fourth.

GERMANY

Coach: Pat Cortina

Last year: Germany stunned the Czech Republic with a 3-0 win in preliminary-round action, but were outscored 24-4 in their other three games to finish fifth in Group A. Leon Draisaitl, who was selected No. 3 in the 2014 draft by the Edmonton Oilers, had two assists to lead Germany to a 3-1 win against Norway to survive the relegation round and earn a third straight appearance in the WJC top division this season.

2015 Draft watch: Four players on the roster are considered C-rated skaters on NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list: defensemen David Trinkberger (Muskegon Lumberjacks, United States Hockey League) and Kai Wissmann (Eisbaren Berlin Jr., Germany), and forwards Dominik Kahun (Munchen, Germany) and Maximilian Kammerer (Salzburg, Austria).

Schedule: Dec. 27, Canada, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, United States, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Slovakia, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Finland, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).

Outlook: Germany doesn't have a Draisaitl to lean on this year and most of the 2015 draft-eligible prospects are considered fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round picks. They'll probably need to survive the best-of-3 relegation round for the right to return to the 2016 WJC.

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