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Finland has inside track in Group C

by Bill Meltzer /

The Florida Panthers' Olli Jokinen will be one of the many talented forwards on Team Finland's roster.
The preliminary round’s Group C of the 2008 IIHF World Championships features four teams that are no strangers to heartbreak in international competition: Finland, Slovakia, Germany and Norway. Dating to 1993, when Slovakia became independent of the former Czechoslovakia, the four countries of Group C have won a combined two gold medals, but lost some of their most important games.

By far, Finland has the most stable and consistent team in the group. The Finns have been perpetual overachievers in recent years. Many times, Finland has entered the World Championship tournament, or Olympics, with rosters that seem destined to finish fourth or fifth in the field and come away with a medal.

Since 1992, the Finns have won nine medals at the World Championships. Over the same time span, Russia has won just four medals (one gold, one silver, two bronze) and the USA has two bronze medals to show for its efforts. But Finland has not been able to fully rekindle the magic of 1995, when it won its first and only gold medal on the home ice of archrival Sweden.

Apart from Finland, the rest of Group C faces an uphill climb to be in medal contention once the playoff round starts. Slovakia is missing most of its top players, and the national federation has been mired in controversy. Germany often gives unprepared opponents a tough time, but lacks forward depth. The Norwegians are a perpetual relegation round team, and turned over much of the leadership in its national federation last year. 

After round-robin play, the top three teams in Group B will move on to play the top three teams of Group B (Canada, United States, Latvia and Slovenia) in the medal-round qualification phase of the tournament. The fourth place team – probably Norway – will head to the relegation round.

Finns aims to overachieve again

Over the last 10 years, Finland has won six medals at the Worlds, including a silver last year. A year ago, Finland upset a powerhouse Russian team on its home ice in the medal round semifinals.

In the stunning 2-1 victory, Mikko Koivu of the Minnesota Wild scored the overtime game winner. Kari Lehtonen made 29 saves, while Philadelphia Flyers defensemen Lasse Kukkonen and Ville Koistinen of the Nashville Predators did a remarkable job of containing Evgeni Malkin’s line. Former NHLer Jukka Hentunen scored a short-handed goal in regulation. 

This year, coach Doug Shedden has some high-caliber forward talent on the preliminary roster, starting with Florida Panthers star Olli Jokinen. Koivu is slated to be back as well, coming off a strong performance in the Minnesota Wild’s six-game loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Jussi Jokinen has been inconsistent offensively in his NHL career to date, but has good hands and is especially deadly in shootouts.

Florida Panthers left wing Ville Peltonen, a member of the now-legendary (at least in Finland) 1995 gold medal squad, is a national team mainstay who will be looked upon to provide leadership. While he’s usually on a checking line in the NHL, he’s often been productive offensively in international and European play.

Last year, Peltonen tallied eight points (two goals) in eight games at the Worlds. A decade ago, he was the third member of the “Huey, Duey, and Louey” line, along with Saku Koivu and Jere Lehtinen. His former linemates are unavailable for this tournament, because their NHL clubs are still in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The rest of the Finnish forward corps is typical of a Lions roster in that it’s filled with role-playing types who are capable of elevating their play in international play.

Tuomo Ruuttu of the Carolina Hurricanes fits this category, as do New York Islanders left wing Sean Bergenheim, former Los Angeles Kings forward Esa Pirnes (now with Färjestads BK in Sweden), veteran Phoenix Coyotes center Niko Kapanen (who scored seven points for Finland at the Worlds last year), and former Colorado Avalanche player Riku Hahl (now with Swedish club Timrå IK). One-time San Jose Sharks and Columbus Blue Jackets Hannes Hyvonen is now a top scorer for Finnish champion Kärpät Oulu.

On defense, injuries will keep enigmatic, but talented, Edmonton Oilers back Joni Pitkanen out of the tournament. That’s a blow to an already thin preliminary roster that is already doing without NHL All-Star Kimmo Timonen, national team mainstay Petteri Nummelin, Sami Salo, the perennially underrated Kukkonen and others.

In their absence, Koistinen is back, and Shedden will rely heavily on former NHL defensemen Mikko Luoma (a key contributor on Swedish champion HV71 Jönköping), Ossi Vaananen (Djurgårdens IF Stockholm) and Antti-Jussi Niemi (Frölunda Indians Gothenburg). Anssi Salmela of Tappara Tampere has emerged as one of the top young offensive defensemen in Finland’s SM-Liiga, tallying 16 goals this season.

After Pitkanen withdrew from the tournament, the Finns added AHL players Janne Niskala (Milwaukee Admirals) and Sami Lepisto (Hershey Bears) to the blue line. Shedden also has available Mikko Jokela, whom he coached this season with Jokerit Helsinki and who brings a right-handed shot to the mix.

Goaltending duties will be entrusted to the capable hands of Minnesota Wild keeper Niklas Backstrom. Young Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Kari Ramo and Finnish league veteran Petri Vehanen (Lukko Rauma) will be the backups.

Slovaks could face tough tournament

Marcel Hossa will not be joined by his brother Marian, because he is still playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
When Slovakia has all – or at least most – of its top players assembled, the national team has shown that it can compete with any team at the senior level. The crowning achievement of the Slovak hockey program was its gold medal at the 2002 World Championships in Sweden. Slovakia also won silver in 2000 and bronze in 2003.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, the Slovak program has been besieged by controversy within its national federation. NHL Hall of Famer Peter Stastny resigned as general manager and went public with his criticisms of the federation leadership, which still has former communist official Juraj Siroky as president. At the junior level, the program’s progress has stagnated and, at the senior level, there have recently been morale problems and issues with recruiting top NHLers to non-Olympic tournaments.

This year’s Team Slovakia roster at the World Championships is more notable for who’s not there than who is. Marian Gaborik (hip injury) won’t be coming. Neither will his Minnesota Wild teammates, Pavol Demitra or Branko Radivojevic. Marian Hossa is playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and neither national team legend Miroslav Satan nor Richard Zednik will be joining the squad. Two-way center Michal Handzus is also out.

The blue line won’t have the services of Zdeno Chara, Andrej Meszaros or Milan Jurcina. Goaltenders Peter Budaj and Jaroslav Halak are both unavailable because their clubs remain in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

What’s left is a sprinkling of NHL players, some former NHLers who’ve returned to Europe (usually playing in countries with higher-paying elite leagues than Slovakia’s Extraliga) and a few players from Slovak clubs.

Even in the absence of Chara and others, the Slovaks still have a serviceable group of defensemen. Coach Julius Supler will rely heavily on the likes of Lubomir Vishnovsky, Andrei Mazei and former NHLers Ivan Majesky (now with Linköpings HC in Sweden) and Martin Strbak (Russian team Metallurg Magnitogorsk). Young Buffalo Sabres defenseman Andrej Sekera will play in his first World Championships at the senior level.

With most of its considerable NHL firepower staying home, the Slovaks will need several current and former NHLers to step up. The top threats are Marcel Hossa, Ivan Ciernik (the leading scorer for Germany’s Cologne Sharks), Juraj Kolnik (a top scorer with Swiss club Servette Geneva this year) and Robert Petrovicky (Leksand Stars of Sweden’s Allsvenskan league). Former Philadelphia Flyers checking wing Radovan Somik (now with Czech team HC Pardubice) will see a lot of penalty killing time.

Slovakia’s options in goal are former Nashville Predators goaltender Jan Lasak (HC Pardubice) and Modo Hockey Örnsköldsvik starter Karol Krizan. Lasak played well on a mediocre Czech Extraliga team this year. Krizan tends to run red-hot and ice-cold and is prone to losing his temper on the ice. At their best, both are capable of stealing games.

Team Germany led by NHL trio

Bruins' center Marco Sturm will lead Team Germany.
Germany has never won an elite level gold medal in international competition, nor a medal of any kind at the World Championships since West Germany won silver in the 1953 tournament in Switzerland. The Germans’ best recent finish was sixth place in 2003. Last year in Moscow, Germany placed ninth.

Don’t look for coach Uwe Krupp’s team to win a medal this year, either. But the Germans could push the Slovaks for second place in the preliminary round-robin and could also make a strong showing in the playoff qualification round. The key: playing scrappy hockey and keeping the score low.

Team Germany doesn’t have much top-end talent and has modest depth at forward. Even so, there’s a decent core in place, led by Boston Bruins center Marco Sturm and NHL defensemen Dennis Seidenberg (Carolina Hurricanes) and Christoph Schubert (Ottawa Senators). Schubert and Seidenberg have both played forward as well as defense at times in their careers.

The rest of the forward and defense corps features DEL players. Most notably, Iserlohn Roosters right wing Michael Wolf led the league in goal-scoring this year with 44 among the 71 points he racked up this season. Yannick Seidenberg (Dennis’ brother) was the second leading scorer on ERC Ingolstadt. Center Florian Busch (Eisbären Berlin) is a national team regular. Former NHLer Stefan Ustorf (Eisbären Berlin) will once again suit up for the national side and remains a solid performer in the import-laden DEL.
Buffalo Sabres prospect Phillip Gogulla posted 44 points in 51 games this season for Kölner Haie (the Cologne Sharks), while veteran Cologne defenseman Andreas Renz had 106 penalty minutes.

In goal, San Jose Sharks farmhand Dimitri Patzold will share duties with former Washington Capitals draft pick Robert Mueller (Kölner Haie). There’s also Sinupret Ice Tigers Nuremberg keeper Dimtrij Kotschnew, who is coming off a strong DEL season.

The German roster is rounded out by several passport players, including Canadian born former NHL defenseman Jason Holland, defenseman/forward Chris Schmidt and right winger John Tripp. Ice Tigers left wing Petr Fical (22 goals in 52 games this season) was born in the former Czechoslovakia.

Norway hopes to hold ground

Flyers' winger Patrick Thoresen will be unavailable; however his younger brother Steffen is expected to play.
Team Norway managed to hold its place in the World Championships in last year’s relegation round, but 2007 was a disastrous year for the national team program. Several of Norway’s top players threatened to withdraw from the team in future competitions unless changes were made. A new administration took over in the national federation.

Norway’s primary mission at the World Championships each year is to avoid relegation. The same goal holds true this year, as Norway has not finished higher than 10th in the last decade and spent four years at the Division I level in the early 2000s.   

Up front, coach Roy Johansen will need production from Modo Hockey power forward Per-Age Skroder (he’s particularly effective on power plays), Iowa Stars wing Marius Holtet and former ECHL player Morten Ask (now with the Duisberg Foxes in Germany).

Philadelphia Flyers wing Patrick Thoresen is unavailable due to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But his younger brother, Steffen, who plays for Vålerenga Oslo and also appeared this season for Swedish minor-league team Växjö Lakers, is on Norway’s roster. Fellow young forward Lars Erik Spets (Duisberg) and Mads Hansen (who split the season between Brynäs Gävle in Sweden and Totempo HVIK in Denmark) should also see some playing time.

On defense, Tommy Jakobsen (Graz 99ers of Austria’s Erste Bank Liga) and Mats Trygg (Cologne Sharks) are perennial members of Team Norway and are both team leaders. Former NHLer Anders Myrvold has dealt with personal problems and injuries, but is slated to join the national team for the tourney.

Goaltending is a particular weak spot for Norway. Veteran Pal Grotnes (Comet Halden) will get the starting duties, backed up by recent junior national-team graduate Ruben Smith (Storhamer) and Andre Lysenstoen (Stavanger Oilers), who played on the national Under-20 team earlier this season at the Division I World Junior Championships.

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