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The Opening Faceoff: Keeping the faith at the Worlds

by Shawn P. Roarke / NHL.com

Rising from darkness where Hell hath no mercy and the screams for vengeance echo on forever. Only those who keep the faith shall escape the wrath of the Metallian... Master of all metal.

-- Judas Priest, Defenders of the Faith

Those 33 words reside on the back of the Defenders of the Faith album by Judas Priest, released in 1984. At the time, CTN was a mere lad of 16, consumed by all things metal and those two sentences served as a mission statement, a clarion call to continue head-banging in the face of all opposition and against the sugary pull of the era’s popular music.

Today, yours truly is closing in on 40 (September if you care to mark it on your calendar), but the faith in metal still burns bright. There may not be as many mosh pits indulged as in the past, but CTN’s soundtrack remains loud and proud, despite its added variety. CTN has no doubt that Metallian – a mythical, metallic land-assault creature conceptualized by the band for the album – would be well-pleased by CTN’s 20-plus years of metal mania.

But the reason those 33 words popped into CTN’s head this week – and it wasn’t because CTN heard Free Wheel Burning earlier in the week – was because the World Championships are fast approaching.

In fact, the tournament begins Friday and will take place in Canada – Quebec and Halifax – this time around. And, as much as anything, the World Championships are about defending the faith – the hockey faith – as anything in hockey.

It isn’t easy to play in the World Championships. For most players, the call to represent the country comes after a long and grueling campaign with their club teams. This is especially true for players based in the NHL, because that league’s schedule is the longest and most taxing. Plus, many of the players are joining their teams after suffering the heartbreak of being bounced out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the first hurdle.

Yet, in most instances, the players report for national-team duty, ready and willing to represent their countries. Rarely is it that the healthy player passes on the opportunity to compete for his country. These men are true defenders of the hockey faith.

And, for that, they should be applauded and supported.

CTN knows that CTN will carve out a little time to take in some of the spectacle, which runs from May 2 to May 18. Yes, it will be hard because the ongoing spectacle of the Stanley Cup Playoffs must take precedence, but CTN will make sure that he takes in some of the World Championships.

As usual, the tournament presents some compelling storylines and a raft of high-end talent. And, as an added bonus, there is no multi-hour time difference to be dealt with, as is usually the case when the tournament is played in Europe. With it being played on North American soil, North American fans can follow the action in real time. Those lucky enough to have access to TSN can even watch most of the games live.

One of the neatest things about tournaments like the World Championships is that they serve as a melting pot for the best hockey talent – at least the best hockey talent not involved in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- the globe has on offer. As a result, it is the perfect opportunity to catch up on the fortunes of players that are little more than names on agate pages or highlights from specialty websites.

And, that’s what the Opening Faceoff is about this week: those players that CTN can’t wait to see in action on one of the bigger hockey stages available to elite-level talent.

CTN would also love to hear about what has you excited about the 2008 World Championships. Feel free to drop CTN a line with your suggestions at roarkeblog@nhl.com. Remember to include your name and hometown if you want your submission to appear in a future edition of the Penalty Box.


Opening Faceoff

Here are 23 players -- and one coach -- that CTN will be keeping a keen eye out for – for varying reasons -- during the next three weeks of World Championships competition.

Sébastien Bordeleau, France -- At one time, Bordeleau was going to be the next great scorer for the Montreal Canadiens. In 1994-95, he scored 128 points in his final year of juniors. Then, he was good for more than a point-per-game in two years in the AHL. But he could never find his scoring touch in the NHL. For the past six years, the 33-year-old has been a scoring star in the Swiss League. He is one of France’s few offensive weapons.

Paul DiPietro, Switzerland -- We all remember DiPietro don’t we? The pesky Canadian, from Sault Ste Marie, no less, scored both goals for the Swiss in their upset of his homeland in the 2006 Olympics. But that is not DiPietro’s only claim to fame. He also scored for Montreal in the clinching game of the 1993 Stanley Cup Final. Clearly, this 37-year-old has a knack for delivering on the biggest stages. It will be interesting to see what he does on his return to his home country.

Shane Doan will be the heart and soul of Team Canada. Doan highlight video
Shane Doan, Canada -- Doan deserves to play big games, but he has had very few opportunities to do so with his club team. Fortunately, Team Canada has always been there for him and allowed Doan to experience all that the game can offer. For a player that treats every game – domestic or international – like it is Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, such a privilege is a just reward. He will be the heart and soul of a Canadian team that is looking to win before a demanding home crowd. Ask Russia how tough that can be.

Lars Eller, Denmark -- This young man was one of St. Louis’ three first-round picks. He is on Denmark's preliminary roster for the World Championships, although that could change when the official rosters are submitted Friday. But if he makes the team, it will be interesting to see how he does against elite competition. For the Blues, it will be a good read on where Eller, who plays club hockey in Sweden, stands against established NHL peers. Unfortunately, he is one of the few world-class players that Denmark can boast, so he will be asked to carry a heavy load for his country.

Robert Esche, USA -- You thought, perhaps, that “Silent Bob” was done after his tumultuous run with Philadelphia ended after the 2006-07 season? Think again. Esche took his intense personality and unquestionable skills to Russia to play with Ak Bar Kazan, where he went 22-5-2 with a 2.01 goals-against average, .912 save percentage and four shutouts. Hopefully, he will get a chance to play regularly in the next few weeks to reacquaint North American scouts with his talents.

Green
Mike Green, Canada -- CTN can’t get enough of this smooth-skating, pinpoint-passing defenseman. To see him play with the best Canada has to offer will be a true treat. CTN will say it here first: Green should be the odds-on favorite to win Best Defenseman award at this tournament. Don’t miss this opportunity to see one of the game’s great young players in action.

Milan Hnilicka, Czech Republic -- At one time, Hnilicka was considered the future of the Atlanta Thrashers organization. The Czech keeper joined Atlanta in its second season and put together a career year the following season, appearing in 60 games. But, things did not work out well after that as Hnilicka only appeared in 23 more NHL games before returning to the Czech Republic. For the past four years, he has been a top-tier goalie for HC Liberic.

Jakub Klepis, Czech Republic -- Here is a cautionary tale about projecting players while still in their teens. Klepis was a first-round selection of Ottawa back in 2002, projected to be a slick, high-scoring European-style player. In 2006-07, he came close to that potential, averaging a point per game in the AHL, but he couldn’t main it at the NHL level. Today, he is back in the Czech Republic trying to once again find his way. It’ll be interesting to see where he is at in that process by the way he plays in this tournament.

Mikko Koivu was Minnesota's best player at the end of the regular season and during Round One of the playoffs. Koivu highlight video
Mikko Koivu, Finland -- The older Koivu, Saku, is involved in a tense second-round series with Philadelphia, while Mikko and his Minnesota mates were bounced in the first round. But Mikko was the best player on that Wild team late in the regular season and through long stretches of the first-round series against Colorado. Can he maintain that pace for his country and fill the role of on-ice leader usually occupied by Saku?

Konstantin Koltsov, Belarus -- Evgeni Malkin was a home run as a Russian taken in the first round. Koltsov, a Belarusian, was a swing and a miss – a first-round selection by the Penguins back in 1999. He never developed into the scorer scouts envisioned and earned just 144 games of NHL action, managing just 36 points. He is just 26, but it appears his time in North America has already come to an end.

Stefan Liv, Sweden -- Perhaps some day Liv will come to North America for good and we can see why Detroit has been so high on him for all these years. Liv, taken in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, has been on Detroit’s depth chart for years but has remained in Sweden – except for a one-year sojourn in the AHL – during his whole apprenticeship. So, tournaments like the World Championships afford North American fans the rare opportunity to see what the fuss was/is all about.

Morten Madsen, Denmark -- First of all, this kid has a great name. Morten Madsen. It just sounds like a hockey player – or perhaps a football placekicker. Plus, he scored 100 points in his only year of junior hockey, making a splash for Victoriaville in the QMJHL. Finally, he is a draft pick of the Minnesota Wild, who had 20 points in 50 AHL games as a first-year pro. An intriguing prospect, to say the least.

Alexei Morozov, Russia -- Believe it or not, Morozov might just be the best goal-scorer not in the NHL these days. After scoring just 84 goals in 451 games in a disappointing NHL career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Morozov has found the Russian game to be much more to his liking. In the past four seasons, he has scored 107 goals in 219 games with Kazan Ak Bars. He has 241 points during that same stretch. What a transformation! It’ll be interesting to see what type of performance he turns in during what will be a tournament with a decidedly North American flair.

Ales Music, Slovenia -- CTN doesn’t know much about this young man, other than the fact that he is 25 and has played for Olimpija Hertz Ljubljana since the 2000-01 season. Plus, he appears to be a pretty talented offensive player against domestic competition that also has had a modicum of success with the national team at the World Juniors level. So, why did CTN single out this Slovenian above all others? It’s the name, silly. Ales and Music. Those might be CTN’s two favorite things after hockey. How can this young lad go wrong?

Anders Myrvold, Norway -- CTN remembers Myrvold fondly, even if few others do. For years, CTN has made it a tradition to catch a Providence Bruins game or two with the old man when returning to the homestead for the winter holidays. For two seasons, 1996-98, Myrvold was the solid defenseman that CTN appreciates. He could score a few points and he always made the safe play. Just as importantly, he didn’t shy away from contact. But, there is a reason CTN is not an NHL scout and Myrvold is a perfect case in point as he saw only 33 games of NHL action. Today, the 32-year-old has returned to Norway to finish out his career.

Sharks goalie Dimitri Patzold should be in goal most of the time for Team Germany. Watch Dimitri Patzold highlight video
Dimitri Patzold, Germany -- A goaltender-in-waiting with the San Jose Sharks, Patzold didn’t get much work this year. He appeared in parts of three NHL games and only played in 21 games with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons. So, it will be cool to see Patzold get the lion’s share of the work for Germany in this tournament. One thing is for sure: He should see quite a few shots.

Janis Sprukts, Latvia -- Not very long ago, it looked like Sprukts would be part of Florida’s revival. Last season, the center accumulated 59 points in 58 games with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. But he managed just three points in the 13 NHL games that followed his promotion. Last season, he stayed in Europe, hooking up with Finland’s Lukko Rauma, where he had 29 points in 53 games. CTN is excited to see where his game is now.

Martin Strbak, Slovakia -- It just seems like this tournament is full of Pittsburgh prospects that didn’t pan out, but that is not the case. Strbak was drafted by Los Angeles and played five games with the Kings before his failed 44-game run with the Pens. Judging by his stats, the 33-year-old Strbak has evolved as a player becoming a more offensively gifted player while playing in the Russian Super League. He has scored eight goals in each of his last two seasons. Strbak could be a key to Slovakia’s offensive attack, providing a secondary punch from the blue line.

Semen Varlamov, Russia -- We all missed a chance to see Varlamov when he wasn’t included on the Russian roster for the World Junior Championships this winter. It was hockey’s loss. But, that oversight has been rectified with Varlamov’s inclusion in the World Championships. The goalie of the future in Washington, Varlamov, 20, is coming off a spectacular season in Russia, backstopping his team to the finals of the Russian playoffs. He is already signed by the Caps and a strong performance here, combined with a good training camp, could see Varlamov challenging for a NHL job as early as this fall. 


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