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Russians, Czechs renew rivalry in Group D

by Bill Meltzer

Due to the Capitals being eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Hart Trophy finalist Alexander Ovechkin will be available to play for Team Russia.
Preliminary round Group D of the 2008 IIHF World Championships features the latest installment of one of the sport’s most-heated rivalries – Russia and the Czech Republic. Going back to the days of the former Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union, there’s always tension whenever the two teams meet.

The Soviet/Russian teams have combined for 38 medals in World Championship play, while the Czechoslovak/Czech entries have racked up 43. The Russians hold the all-time edge in gold medals, 23 to 11.

Russia, however, has been mired in a gold-medal drought that goes back to 1993 (its only post-Communist era gold). A year ago, with the tournament played in Moscow, a stacked Russian team was the favorite to win gold. Instead, the hosts fell to a scrappy Finnish team in the semifinals and had to settle for a bronze medal.

This year, Russia is once again considered a strong contender for gold. There’s nothing the Russians would like more than to return the favor to defending gold medalist Canada by taking gold on Canadian ice.

The Czechs, meanwhile, have won gold in four of the last nine tournaments, including three in a row at one point (1999-2001) and most recently in 2003. After a silver medal at the 2006 tourney in Riga, Latvia, the Czechs finished a disappointing seventh last year.

The other two teams in Group D are Denmark and Italy. The Danish program has made remarkable progress during the last few years, and the team has been successful in holding its spot in the elite tourney at the senior level. This year, the Danes are hoping to finish in the top 10.

Italy, which placed 12th last year and survived the relegation round in 2006, has been able to stay in the top tourney for most of the last 16 years -- with the exception of a three-year demotion that lasted from 2003-05. But the national team, coached by former NHL star Michel Goulet, is in a transitional phase.

After round-robin play, the top three teams in Group D will move on to play the top three teams of Group A (Sweden, Switzerland, Belarus and France) in the medal-round qualification phase of the tournament.  The fourth-place teams – likely to be France and the loser of the Italy-Denmark game – will head to the relegation round.

Russia loaded for bear

The Washington Capitals’ loss is Team Russia and coach Vyacheslav Bykov’s gain. With the Caps eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a tough seven-game series against the Philadelphia Flyers, Hart Trophy finalist Alex Ovechkin became available for the Worlds. He will be joined by Caps teammates Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin.

While Fedorov is no longer a prolific point producer, he’s revered by fellow Russian players and is still valuable defensively and is a top faceoff man. The tournament also affords him the opportunity to play on the national team with his brother, Fedor Fedorov (now with Dynamo Moscow).
If the Capitals three weren’t dangerous enough, Russia will feature top Atlanta Thrashers sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, fast-rising Nashville Predators talent Alexander Radulov and highly regarded Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nikolai Kulemin.

Ever since he returned home to play in the Russian Super League, former Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Alexei Morozov has been the top offensive talent in Europe. Morozov will be joined on Team Russia by his Ak Bars Kazan linemates Danis Zaripov and Sergei Zinoviev. The league’s leading scorer this season, Sergei Mozyakin (Atlant Mytishi), is also on board for the Worlds.

Russia’s defense and goaltending are not quite up to the same standards as its forwards. With defensemen such as Sergei Zubov and Sergei Gonchar still playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Russia will look to Buffalo Sabres defenseman Dmitri Kalinin, Denis Grebeshkov (Edmonton Oilers), former NHLer Danny Markov (Dynamo Moscow) and several RSL defensemen.

In goal, Alexander Eremenko of RSL champion Salavat Yulaev Ufa is likely to get the starting nod. He will be backed up by Mikhail Biryukov (MVD Balashikha) and Washington Capitals prospect Semen Varlamov (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl).

Czechs look to regain form

The New Jersey Devils' Patrik Elias will headline the Czech Republic roster at the 2008 World Championships.
Unless the Czech Republic gets further reinforcements from the NHL, coach Alois Hadamczik’s team may face a tough battle to win a medal in this tournament. The team features a healthy cast of current and former NHL players, but lacks star power on the order of Russia or Canada.

Up front, the Czechs’ most-decorated player is New Jersey Devils star Patrik Elias. He’ll be joined by the likes of Radim Vrbata and Ales Kotalik, who will be expected to provide scoring punch. The lineup will also feature the likes of Tomas Fleischmann, Martin Hanzal, Boston Bruins youngster David Krejci (fresh off a productive Stanley Cup Playoff series against Montreal) and several players currently plying their trade in the Czech Extraliga, or elsewhere in Europe.

The Czech defense will be anchored by Toronto Maple Leafs blueliner Tomas Kaberle. Heavy minutes will also go to NHL veterans Filip Kuba and Karel Rachunek. The unit is rounded out by Ladislav Smid, Zbynek Michalek, defensive-minded Vladimir Sicak (HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice) and Petr Caslava (RSL team Severstal Cherepovets).

Former NHL goaltender Milan Hnilicka (Liberec White Tigers) is the likely starting goaltender. He’ll be backed up by Adam Svoboda of Czech Extraliga champs Slavia Prague.

Denmark eyes Italy game

Team Denmark has little chance of betting either Russia or the Czech Republic in the round robin. But as long as the Danes beat Italy, they’re safe from the relegation round. 

Coached by former University of Manitoba coach Mike Sirant, the Danes will need to adapt their style to the smaller North American ice that will be used in this tourney. Typically, the Danes play a technical, puck-possession perimeter game.

The Manitoba Moose of the AHL were eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs and as a result Jannik Hansen will be available to play for Team Denmark.
Denmark hoped to have New York Islanders forward Frans Nielsen available for the tournament, but a shoulder injury forced him to step out. However, Jannik Hansen may become available now that his Manitoba Moose club is out of the Calder Cup playoffs. As usual, the Danes will feature Swedish league veterans such as Kim Staal (Linköpings HC) and Morten Green (Allsvenskan club Leksands IK).

The Danes’ real progress has been in developing young prospects, and highly regarded St. Louis Blues 2007 first-round pick Lars Eller will be in the lineup. Likewise, Minnesota Wild farmhand Morten Madsen, Peter Regin of Swedish club Timrå IK and Nichlas Hardt all made the roster. The tournament availability of likely 2008 first-round draft pick Mikkel Boedker depends on how his Kitchener Rangers fare in the Ontario Hockey League finals.

Veteran defenseman Jesper Damgaard (Rodovre Mighty Bulls) typically captains the Danish team and plays heavy minutes in all game situations. Swedish league blueliners Mads Bodker (Rögle) and Daniel Nielsen (Leksand) will also see significant time.

In goal, former Swedish-league player Peter Hirsch (now with Aalborg IK in Denmark) will retain the starting job almost by default. He has not played well in recent tournaments. His primary backup is 22-year-old Patrick Galbraith (Soenderjyske Vojens).

Italy faces new challenges

In recent years, Team Italy has been able to rely on veteran passport players, such as former NHL goaltender Jason Muzzatti, center Tony Tuzzolino, former Philadelphia Flyers draft pick John Parco and longtime European league player Joe Busillo to plug key holes on the national team. All of those players except Parco are gone.

In their place, coach Michel Goulet will rely on former Winnipeg Jets and longtime minor league center Jason Cirone, former Michigan Tech center Jon Pittis, one-time AHL defenseman Steve Gallace and a core of Italian-born and -trained players.

Up front, Goulet has slim pickings from which to choose.  He will need Mario Chitarroni, who averaged better than a point-per-game  this season, or Luca Ansoldi (the second-leading scorer on HC Bolzano) to supplement the offense.

On defense, Erste Bank Liga defenseman Armin Helfer (HC Innsbruck) should see both power-play and penalty-killing time, as will Canadian-born former AHLer Andre Signoretti. Veteran defenseman Carlo Lorenzi (Alleghe) is a Team Italy mainstay, as is Michele Strazzabosco (Milan).

Italy named four goaltenders to its preliminary roster. Unfortunately, Goulet will have to hold his breath no matter which one he chooses. Alleghe goaltender Gunther Hell (there’s a name you won’t soon forget) made the Italian squad at last year’s tournament and backed up Muzzatti at the 2006 Olympics in Turin. So he may get the nod at the beginning.

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