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Group B favorite Sweden aims to reclaim WJC gold

by Adam Kimelman / NHL.com

The journey is different but the destination remains the same for Sweden.

As the host nation for the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, Sweden was counted among the favorites. And they lived up to challenge, reaching the gold-medal game for the third straight year.

But much like 2013, when Sweden lost to the United States in the championship game in Russia, Sweden this time lost to Finland 3-2 in overtime.

While the 2014 WJC didn't end the way Sweden wanted, it's something the players and coaching staff have no intention of reliving heading into the 2015 tournament, which will be held in Montreal and Toronto.

"That was a different journey," Sweden coach Rikard Gronborg said. "Everyone wants to stand on the top of the mountain. But at the same time it's a different journey, different challenges."

Among the challenges Sweden will face in Group B in the preliminary round will be Czech Republic, which will feature a number of the players that won the silver medal at the 2014 World Under-18 Championship, and Russia, which has won the bronze medal the past two tournaments.

Group B will play its preliminary-round games at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

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

CZECH REPUBLIC

Coach -- Miroslav Prerost

Last year -- It was an up-and-down tournament for the Czechs. They won twice in the preliminary round, including a 5-4 shootout win against Canada; they also lost twice, including a 3-0 defeat against Germany two days after their momentous win against Canada. They lost 5-3 to Finland in the quarterfinals and finished sixth.

2015 Draft watch -- Pavel Zacha, who plays with the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League, is expected to be a top-10 pick in the NHL Draft. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound center has made an easy adjustment to North America; he's fourth among OHL rookies with 19 points in 21 games. Zacha also has WJC experience; he played five games for the Czechs at the 2014 tournament. Another draft-eligible player to watch is 5-11, 187-pound center Michael Spacek, who plays for Pardubice in the top Czech league. "He's a hard-worker with a good skill set," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said. "Good decisions, smart passer and playmaker. A classical Czech technical, quick, mobile forward. He's an all-around player with a nose for the net."

Schedule -- Dec. 26, vs. Sweden, 5 p.m. ET; Dec. 27, vs. Switzerland, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, vs. Denmark, 1 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, vs. Russia, 5 p.m. ET.

Outlook -- Having forwards David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins) and Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals) on the team puts the Czechs among the medal contenders. Zacha gained a lot from last year's tournament, and with a half-season of adjustment to smaller North American rinks won't be intimidated by anything. Vitek Vanecek (Washington Capitals) should be solid in goal and give the Czechs a good chance to finish second in the group and contend for a medal.

DENMARK

Coach -- Olaf Eller

Last year -- Went 5-0 to win the Division I Group A tournament in Sanok, Poland.

2015 Draft watch -- Left wing Mikkel Aagard led Denmark in scoring at the 2014 WJC I-A tournament with eight points in five games. Now with the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL, the 5-11, 186-pound forward has five goals and 10 assists in 28 games.

Schedule -- Dec. 26, vs. Russia, 1 p.m. ET; Dec. 27, vs. Sweden, 1 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, vs. Czech Republic, 1 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, vs. Switzerland, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).

Outlook -- With Nikloaj Ehlers (Winnipeg Jets) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (Columbus Blue Jackets), offense won't be hard to find. Denmark's game against Switzerland on the final day of group play likely will be for a spot in the medal round.

RUSSIA

Coach -- Valeri Bragin

Last year -- Russia beat the United States in the quarterfinals but lost to Sweden in the semifinals. Against Canada in the bronze-medal game, Russia scored twice in the first period and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 30 of 31 shots in a 2-1 win. It was the second straight tournament Russia beat Canada for the bronze.

2015 Draft watch -- Defenseman Ivan Provorov, who plays for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League, is an A-rated skater by NHL Central Scouting and earned an invitation to the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. The 6-foot, 197-pound defender leads all WHL rookies with 37 points in 35 games. He's second among all WHL defensemen in points and tied for third with 10 goals.

Schedule -- Dec. 26, vs. Denmark, 1 p.m. ET; Dec. 28, vs. Switzerland, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, vs. Sweden, 5 p.m. ET; Dec. 31, vs. Czech Republic, 5 p.m. ET.

Outlook -- Goaltender Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers) could be one of the better players at his position in the tournament. Pavel Buchnevich (New York Rangers) is a goal-scoring machine. He was a point-per-game player for Russia at the 2014 WJC and has 10 goals and 21 points in 32 games with Cherepovets in the Kontinental Hockey League. It will be close between Russia and the Czechs for second place in the group.

SWEDEN

Coach -- Rikard Gronborg

Last year -- Sweden beat Russia 2-1 in the semifinals to advance to the gold-medal game for the third straight year. Christian Djoos' goal late in the third period forced overtime against Finland, but Sweden had to settle for the silver medal for the second straight tournament.

2015 Draft watch -- Defenseman Oliver Kylington, among the top prospects playing in Europe this season, won't play in the tournament because of an undisclosed injury. One player who will be there is 6-foot, 180-pound right wing Jens Looke, who earned an A rating on NHL Central Scouting and who has two goals and six points in 28 games with Brynas in the Swedish Hockey League. "Good skater with acceleration," Stubb said. "A highly skilled playmaker who sees the ice very well. He uses his good hands and passing ability to move the puck through traffic. Is alert and dangerous around the net and has a quick shot. Plays a very competitive two-way game and is mature."

Schedule -- Dec. 26, vs Czech Republic, 5 p.m. ET; Dec. 27, vs. Denmark, 1 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, vs. Russia, 5 p.m. ET; Dec. 31, vs. Switzerland, 1 p.m. ET.

Outlook -- With Buffalo Sabres prospect Jonas Johansson unable to play because of an illness, Sweden now has a question mark in goal. Samuel Ward is a regular with Asploven in Sweden's second division and could be the choice. Other options are Fredrik Bergvik (San Jose Sharks) and Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders), but neither has top-level pro experience. That position is Sweden's only weakness, however. Robert Hagg (Philadelphia Flyers) will lead a deep, talented defense that can attack offensively and shut down top players. Two players taken in the first round of the 2014 draft, William Nylander (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Adrian Kempe (Los Angeles Kings), will be the leaders on offense. Despite the issues in goal, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Sweden not only win the group, but advance to the championship game for a fourth straight tournament.

SWITZERLAND

Coach -- John Fust

Last year -- Switzerland won one of its four games in the preliminary round and then lost 4-1 to Canada in the quarterfinals.

2015 Draft watch -- Timo Meier, who plays for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, has 21 goals and 46 points in 33 games. He earned an A rating from NHL Central Scouting and an invitation to play in the NHL/CHL Top Prospects Game. Center Denis Malgin is listed at 5-8 and 163 pounds but earned a B rating from Central Scouting. His play has improved against better competition since a promotion to Zurich in the top Swiss league. "He is very small, but stocky and physically strong," Stubb said. "He has a great set of skills. Excellent speedy forward who can create scoring chances with his speed." Another player to watch is Malgin's Zurich teammate, 6-2, 220-pound defenseman Jonas Sieganthaler. Stubb said Sieganthaler's maturity and poise have been impressive this season.

Schedule -- Dec. 27, vs. Czech Republic, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, vs. Russia, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, vs. Denmark, 5 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, vs. Sweden, 1 p.m. ET.

Outlook -- Kevin Fiala (Nashville Predators), the 11th pick of the 2014 draft, will be the go-to scorer. Mirco Mueller (San Jose Sharks) likely will be named captain and lead what could be an impressive defense. Among the defense group is Phil Baltisberger and Yannick Rathgeb, both of whom play in the OHL, so the small ice and physical play won't bother them. It's likely Switzerland's medal hopes will come down to its final-day game against Denmark.

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