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First place, bye awaits Russia-Sweden winner

by Aaron Vickers
It's the game both teams had circled on their calendars when the World Junior Championship schedule was released.

And now, the New Year's Eve clash between Sweden and Russia – the defending gold medalist – will have first place in Group A as the prize.

A win for either team launches it directly into a semifinal match-up. With Team USA's loss to the Czech Republic on Friday, Canada has already punched its ticket into the semis for Group B.

Make no mistake about it. Both teams are ready.

"It's going to be a heck of a game," Swedish coach Roger Ronnberg said. "It's going to be a big test."

Added Russian coach Valeri Bragin through a translator: "Very important game for both teams. It's going to be an important game."

The coaches seem subdued compared to the excitement of their players, who are ready to scrap tooth and nail for the right to be the victors out of the Calgary group.

"We play for first place in the group," Russian forward Alexander Khokhlachev said. "We understand if we win this game we go to the semifinal. It's a big game. If we beat Sweden we avoid a hard quarterfinal and have some rest."

For those looking to get a grasp on how the two teams stack up, don't bother looking at either club's previous games.

While Russia struggled in their 3-1 victory against Slovakia, it's no reason to make note of Sweden's 9-1 triumph against the same team. Sweden eked out a 4-3 shootout victory against Switzerland, the same team Russia blanked 3-0.

"Each game is a story by itself," Ronnberg said.

If Ronnberg's selling that theory, consider forward Max Friberg a customer.

"We don't care about what they do in the other games, except when we play them," said Friberg, who shares the tournament lead in goals at six with Canadian Mark Stone.

Still, both teams send loud messages to each other with their final performances before Saturday's matchup. Russia put up 14 goals against Latvia on Thursday while Sweden countered with nine against Slovakia on Friday.

Friberg admits that while the lopsided victory against Slovakia wasn't a direct shot at Russia, he hopes his team;s performance strikes fear into their New Year's Eve foe.

"(We) try to play our best every game but of course I hope we get them a little terrified with the way we played," Friberg admitted. "We'll play our game. I think the Russians have to change their game instead. We will play the same."

Captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov, Russia's sole returnee from last year's golden squad, took a more diplomatic approach to Saturday's game.

"There is total respect there with Team Sweden," Kuznetsov said. "It'd be nice to be the winner of that game and have a couple of days off. It will be a hard game on New Year's Eve."

"Destiny will see how it works out for us."
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