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Swedes should breeze in Group A

by Bill Meltzer

Washington Capitals rookie, Nicklas Backstrom, is a veteran of three World Championships with Sweden.
First-time participants in the annual IIHF World Championships quickly learn that the road to the gold medal is arduous. The winning country not only has to assemble a talented mix of players on short notice, but the roster has to jell quickly and play its best hockey as the games get tougher and the team members battle the accumulated fatigue of the season and tournament.

The medal-contending countries in the 2008 World Championships in Halifax and Quebec City will play a slate of six games within 10 days simply to reach the playoff round. First, there's a preliminary round, consisting of four groups of four teams. Each group plays a round-robin of three games. The top three teams in each group then play a playoff qualification round against one of the other groups.

The bottom finisher from the four groups heads to the relegation round, where two teams will earn the right to stay at the international elite level next year. The bottom two teams will be demoted to the Division I World Championships in 2009, to be replaced by this year's Division I winners, Austria and Hungary.

On paper, Group A is the least competitive preliminary bracket. Team Sweden figures to beat each of Switzerland, Belarus and France. The Swiss are likely to finish second, Belarus third and France simply hopes to avoid finishing in the bottom two of the relegation round.

The Group A teams will play three times between Friday and next Wednesday. The top three will then play the top three teams of Group D (consisting of Russia, the Czech Republic, Denmark and Italy) in the playoff qualification round.

Sweden looks to recover 2006 form

Two years ago, Sweden made international hockey history, as distinctly different versions of Tre Kronor won the Olympic gold medal and IIHF World Championship gold in the same year. 
The latter came as something of a surprise, as coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson had few of Sweden's NHL top players available to him. But the club jelled and won gold through a combination of stingy team defense, hustle and hard work. Last year in Russia, the Swedes' similar approach couldn't duplicate the results.

The current Swedish roster (which could still be bolstered by other additions from the NHL) is a bit light on elite goal-scoring punch, but features a solid blend of experience and youth. 

Without question, the team's marquee forward is Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom.

The Calder Trophy candidate is only 20 years old but is now a veteran of three World Championships for Tre Kronor. Backstrom will be counted on to be the team's top playmaker and also contribute goal scoring. The youngster scored goals in each of the four final games of Washington's first round Stanley Cup playoff loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. Apart from Backstrom, Tre Kronor will need different heroes to emerge once it faces the top teams in the tournament.

Gustafsson will need occasional production from players who have been strong offensive players in Europe or junior hockey. Specifically, he'll look to the likes of former New York Islanders and Minnesota Wild right wing Mattias Weinhandl (now with Linköpings HC), Edmonton Oilers winger Robert Nilsson, former Nashville Predators farmhand Daniel Widing (Brynäs IF), current Predators prospect Patric Hornqvist (Djurgårdens IF), former Anaheim Ducks forward Tony Martensson (Linköping), one-time Colorado Avalanche draftee Linus Videll (Södertälje SK) and well-traveled former NHLer Nils Ekman (Khimik Moscow of the Russian Super League).

On the back line, Gustafsson will rely on former NHL All-Star Kenny Jonsson (Rögle BK), Florida Panthers defenseman Magnus Johansson and Carolina Hurricanes blue liner Niclas Wallin to provide veteran leadership. The defense also including one of the NHL's fastest-rising young defensemen in Alexander Edler and highly regarded Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Anton Stralman.

Tre Kronor's preliminary goaltending roster is solid on paper. Phoenix Coyotes keeper Mikael Tellqvist, Los Angeles Kings goaltender Erik Ersberg and Stefan Liv of Swedish champion HV71 Jönköping all have international experience and are capable of giving their team a chance to win most days.

Switzerland thrives on low-scoring games

Martin Gerber will be one of two NHL goalies tending net for Team Switzerland.
The Swiss hockey program produces high-quality goaltending and trains players to play a defensively sound style of hockey. When Team Switzerland can frustrate its opponents' top scorers, it can scratch out wins against even elite opponents – as it did in shocking the Czech Republic and Canada in succession at the 2006 Olympics.

Team Switzerland brings two NHL goaltenders to this year's World Championships. Both Ottawa Senators keeper Martin Gerber and Anaheim Ducks backup Jonas Hiller can deliver the type of performances their country needs to steal wins against medal contenders.

Coach Ralph Krueger's team often falls short in the goal-scoring department. The Swiss typically generate little offensive pressure against high-end opponents and have trouble coming back when they've fallen behind. In Switzerland's top domestic league (Nationalliga A), the top 20 scorer charts are almost always dominated by import players, even though Swiss players make up the majority of the rosters.

As usual, the Swiss roster at the 2009 World Championships primarily consists of role-playing types and the team will need to keep the scores low against Sweden and other top-end opponents to have any chance at an upset. But there's also more home-grown offensive talent than past editions of Team Switzerland.

Among the native-born-and-trained Swiss on Krueger's team, Minnesota Wild draftee Julien Sprunger (HC Fribourg-Gotternon) and former Pittsburgh Penguins draftee Patrik Bartschi (SC Bern) have emerged as two of the top scorers in the Swiss league. Veteran Ivo Rutheman (SC Bern) is a mainstay in the Swiss league and on the national team.

In international competitions, Switzerland still relies on 37-year-old passport player Paul DiPietro to provide timely scoring. The Canadian-born former NHLer scored both Swiss goals in the win against Canada at the 2006 Olympics and provided three goals and five points at the World Championships in Russia last year.

The Swiss defense will be backboned by two of the top offensive-minded defensemen in the domestic league. Former Phoenix Coyotes blueliner Goran Bezina (Servette Geneva) was the top all-around defenseman in the Nationalliga this year. Twenty-five-year-old former Coyotes prospect Beat Forster (Zurich Lions) tallied 14 goals this season.

In addition, former Ottawa Senators defenseman Julien Vauclair (HC Lugano), veteran Matthias Seger (Zurich) and Beat Gerber (SC Bern) are all regular members of the national team blue line.

Belarus needs to be more than sum of parts

Former Capitals coach Glen Hanlon, led Team Belarus to a spot in the medal round of the 2006 World Championships.
Higher-ranked teams have learned the hard way over the years that Belarus can't be taken lightly. Most famously, the Belarusians shocked Sweden at the 2002 Olympics and, with former Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon behind the bench, earned a spot in the medal round at the 2006 World Championships after beating Switzerland and nearly toppling Russia.

Belarus slipped a bit last year at the Worlds, finishing 11th. This year, coach Curt Fraser faces a tall order in trying to craft upsets without the services of top offensive talents Andrei Kostitsyn and Sergei Kostitsyn, who are playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens. Also unavailable is veteran Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ruslan Salei.

In the absence of these key players, the best-known player on Team Belarus is former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Sergei Koltsov (now with Russian Super League champion Salavat Yulaev Ufa). Last year, Koltsov scored twice and added two assists in two games at the World Championships.

The team will also lean heavily on national team veteran Alexei Kalyuzhny (Avangard Omsk of the Russian Super League). The 29-year-old wing is one of the top offensive players in the RSL, scoring a combined 28 goals and 60 points in 60 regular season and playoff games this year.

The blue line consists of players on Belarusian league clubs. One of the few recognizable names to North American fans is Sergei Kolosov, a 2004 draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings who also played in the USHL for Cedar Rapids. But the dean of the defense is 36-year-old Alexander Makritsky, who has played on the national team for well over a decade and previously played in Germany's DEL.

Starting goaltending chores will likely be entrusted to veteran Dmitri Karpikov (Keramin Minsk). The 5-foot-8, acrobatic 34-year-old is still one of the best goalies in the Belarusian league. Vitali Koval (Neman Grodno) will back him up.

France looks to Huet to avoid relegation

Team France hopes to make up for its lack of scoring power with the help of Washington goalie Cristobal Huet.
Team France has but one goal entering the 2008 World Championships – finish no lower than 14th in the tournament and avoid relegation to Division I. Coach Dave Henderson's team stands little chance of advancing to the playoff qualification round, as the roster simply is not in the same class as Team Switzerland or Belarus, much less Tre Kronor.

The one and only area France can compete successfully with the rest of Group A is in the most important position on the ice: goaltending. Washington Capitals goalie Cristobal Huet, fresh off helping lift his club to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, will have to steal a couple games for Team France to prevent relegation.

Among Huet's supporting cast, the most notable name is former Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes center Sebastian Bordeleau. The Canadian-born and trained center holds dual citizenship because he grew up in France while his father played in the country. For the last six seasons, Bordeleau has starred in Switzerland's Nationalliga for SC Bern.

There is also a sprinkling of players on Team France who ply their trade in the better leagues around Europe. Former Chicago Blackhawks right wing prospect Yorick Treille has AHL experience and currently plays in Germany's DEL for ERC Ingolstadt. University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Florida Everblades (ECHL) center Laurent Meunier is a regular for Swiss club Servette Geneva. Forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, 23, tallied 14 goals and 29 points for the Leksand Stars of Sweden's Allsvenskan (top minor league) this year.

The remaining roster primarily consists of players in France's domestic Ligue Magnus. Right winger Francois Rozenthal (Morzine) has been one of the league's top offensive performers and a frequent member of Team France for a decade.

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