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Uphill climb for Canada to win fourth straight gold at world junior championship

NHL.com @NHL

The road to another gold looks rougher for the Canadian junior hockey team.

Canada is away from home for a second straight year and this time is taking a younger team to the world junior championship. That combination lengthens the odds of a fourth straight gold medal for Canada, but the defending champions remain contenders for the title along with the U.S. and Russia.

The Canadian team is confident heading into the 2008 tournament in the Czech cities of Pardubice and Liberec even though the nine other countries there are gunning to end Canada's run of titles.

"We're going to go there pretending we're the New England Patriots and everybody hates us," captain Karl Alzner said. "Last year, it was a really big deal to win for the first time overseas in a long time. We want to keep winning overseas.

"It's not an option for us to settle for second-best or third-best. We really want to win again."

Canada opens defence of its title Wednesday (2 p.m. ET) against the host Czechs in Pardubice.

The Canadians are in Pool A with the Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovakia and newcomer Denmark, which helps their chances of finishing first and gaining the bye to the semifinal round Jan. 4.

The competition for the bye in Pool B looks stiffer with Russia, the U.S., Finland, Switzerland and Kazakhstan in it.

The second-and third-place teams in each pool cross over to meet in the quarter-finals. The final is Jan. 5.

Canada won the 2007 title in Sweden with 11 veterans from the previous year's team in Vancouver, including five on defence.

This Canadian team is the country's fifth-youngest of the last 25 years with an average age just under 19. Four of the seven defencemen are 18.

The squad resembles the team that won in Vancouver in 2006 by scoring muck-and-grind goals and allowing no one near their goaltender.

But this edition has to contend with the extra four metres east-west the international ice surface gives the pass-happy Europeans. They also won't have home fans shooting their legs full of adrenaline this time.

For Canada to win again, the forwards are going to have to chip in on defence more than ever, the goaltender will have to make saves that he shouldn't and special teams must be superior to the opposition's.

Craig Hartsburg, in his second year behind Canada's bench, wants his team to stay on the defensive side of the play and gain the puck by getting the opposition to cough it up.

"Last year, the defence were outstanding, but it took a group of five on the ice plus your goaltender to defend," Hartsburg said. "We feel we've got a lot of speed and we can put a lot of pressure on people up ice.

"We're not just going to sit back and defend. We want to make it very hard on the opposition every shift because we're going to outwork them within our system."

The majority of this Canadian team went 7-0-1 against Russia in the summer's Super Series, so they can draw confidence and team chemistry from that.

Kyle Turris, the top Canadian taken in this year's NHL draft at No. 3, is emerging as Canada's chief goalscorer, but Canada will also need contributions from Claude Giroux, Stefan Legein, Brad Marchand and Brandon Sutter.

With his speed, Steve Stamkos could be lethal on the power play, while Canada's other 17-year-old, John Tavares, will likely see spot duty at first and could play himself into a larger role on the team.

Defencemen Alzner and Drew Doughty will be counted on to help shut down the opposition's best scorers.

But everything will hinge on the performance and composure of the goaltender. Canada's starter has yet to be determined, but either Jonathan Bernier or Steve Mason will have a tough act to follow behind Carey Price, who was the tournament MVP in Sweden.

Players to watch in this tournament include Russian forward Alexei Cherepanov, U.S. forward James vanRiemsdyk, Czech forward Jakub Voracek, who plays for the Halifax Mooseheads, Finnish goaltender Riku Helenius of the Seattle Thunderbirds and centre Michael Backlund of Sweden.

The International Ice Hockey Federation is implementing a two-referee system at the world juniors this year for the first time. The three leagues in the Canadian Hockey League run two-ref teams for part of their regular seasons and all of the playoffs.

"I think it's probably good," Hartsburg said. "The speed of the game now, I think it's really hard for one guy to control it. The danger obviously is more penalties.

"Our kids is used to playing that in our leagues, maybe not every night, but they do see it. Discipline will be a big part of it."

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