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WJC Group B: CAN, USA and FIN possible medalists

by Mike G. Morreale
After spoiling Canadian hockey fans with five straight gold medal-winning performances at the World Junior Championship, the Canadian National Junior Team hasn't exactly produced memorable finishes for its rabid followers the past two years.
First there was the 6-5 overtime loss to the United States in the 2010 gold medal match Saskatchewan. Then there was the inexplicable meltdown in the third period against the Russians in last year's gold-medal game in Buffalo when Team Canada allowed five unanswered goals on 10 shots in a 5-3 defeat.
Certainly, those disappointments are on the minds of returning players to this year's Canadian team. Instead of dwelling on the negative, however, many of them are using it as a motivational tool to do things a little differently.
"One of the things I took from the loss [to Russia] was how determined teams are to beat Canada," forward Jaden Schwartz told "Every country is sending a good team, there are no easy wins and that means you have to play for 60 minutes every game. You can't take a shift off, can't take a period off. We all realized that with the outcome last year. Playing on a big stage like that, you learn a lot as far as pressure, the good and bad, and how to handle your emotions on the big stage."

"One of the things I took from the loss [to Russia] was how determined teams are to beat Canada. Every country is sending a good team, there are no easy wins and that means you have to play for 60 minutes every game. You can't take a shift off, can't take a period off. We all realized that with the outcome last year. Playing on a big stage like that, you learn a lot as far as pressure, the good and bad, and how to handle your emotions on the big stage."
-- Jaden Schwartz

With Canada hosting the tournament for the fourth time in five years, head coach Don Hay will look to guide his players back to the big game and, this time, seal the deal. The last time Hay was behind the bench for Team Canada at the WJC was 1995 and he led the country to its first-ever 7-0-0 record. That '95 group out-scored their opponents, 49-22, on the way to the third of five-straight gold medals.
Canada's preliminary round schedule will include four other teams in Group B, including the United States., Finland, the Czech Republic and Denmark. The Americans will be coached by Dean Blais, who led the country to its second WJC gold medal in 2010.
This marks the third time Blais will be behind the bench for Team USA at the WJC. The U.S. has lost seven of its last eight meetings against Canada at the WJC, including all four preliminary-round matchups. The team's are slated to meet at Rexall Place in Edmonton on New Year's Eve.
"What I liked about our team in 2010 was the speed of the players picked to represent our country and the character and grittiness that we had when we played," Blais said. "I think all the fans in Saskatoon appreciated that our players could make plays, but we were as quick as anyone in the tournament and made plays at that top speed."
Here's a breakdown of the five teams competing in Group B at the 2012 WJC. The top-seeded team from each group will earn a bye into the semifinals of the medal round. The second- and third-place teams will play a cross-over quarterfinal round contest.



Coach --
Don Hay

Assistant coaches --
George Burnett, Ryan Huska, Scott Walker

Last year --
The Canadians suffered a 5-3 loss to Russia in the gold medal game; a contest they led 3-0 entering the third period. It marked the biggest comeback in WJC gold-medal game history. Center Brayden Schenn was named the tournament's most valuable player after collecting 8 goals and 18 points in seven games. Schenn tied Dale McCourt for most points in a WJC tournament -- a mark that had stood since 1977. Canada defenseman and team captain Ryan Ellis was named the best at his position after producing 3 goals and 10 points.

NHL prospects --
There are 12 former first-round picks in the fold for coach Don Hay, including one goalie, five defensemen and six forwards. The list includes goalie Mark Visentin (Phoenix, 2010) of Niagara; defensemen Nathan Beaulieu (Montreal, 2011) of Saint John, Brandon Gormley (Phoenix, 2010) of Moncton, Dougie Hamilton (Boston, 2011) of Niagara, Jamie Oleksiak (Dallas, 2011) of Saginaw and Mark Pysyk (Buffalo, 2010) of Edmonton (WHL). At forward are Brett Connolly of the Tampa Bay Lightning (2010), Quinton Howdon (Florida, 2010) of Moose Jaw, Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida, 2011) of Saint John, Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg, 2011) of Barrie, Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis, 2010) of Colorado College and Ryan Strome (NY Islanders, 2011) of Niagara.

2012 Entry Draft watch --
There will be two prospects of note on the roster -- Everett Silvertips captain Ryan Murray on defense and forward Tanner Pearson of the Barrie Colts.

Schedule --
Dec. 26, Finland, 3:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Czech Republic, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Denmark, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Team USA, 8 p.m.  ET (NHLN-US).

Morreale prediction -- Despite the fact this team oozes talent and appears to offer plenty of firepower up front, questions remain in goal and how long it will take 2011 Memorial Cup MVP Jonathan Huberdeau to regain his form after sitting out five weeks with a broken foot. The Canadians should earn a bye into the semifinals of the medal round after winning Group B, but will settle for silver in the end.

Vickers prediction -- For the second-straight year, Canada will feel heartbreak at the hands of Russia in the gold-medal game. Though its determination and heart is unrivaled while playing in front of the home crowd in Alberta, Canada will ultimately be trumped by the skill of the Russians.

Coach -- Dean Blais

Assistant coaches -- Scott Sandelin, Tom Ward, Joe Exter

Last year --
The U.S. won back-to-back medals for the first time in history at the WJC when it defeated
Sweden, 4-2, in the bronze-medal game in Buffalo, N.Y. It marked the first medal by the United States in the WJC on home soil. After finishing first in Group A, the U.S. suffered a 4-1 loss to Canada in the tournament semifinal round. Goalie Jack Campbell (5-1) was named the tournament's top goalie after finishing with a 1.70 goals-against average and .940 save percentage.

NHL prospects --
The goaltending tandem of three-time WJC participant Jack Campbell (Dallas, 2010) and newcomer John Gibson (Anaheim, 2011) is probably the best this tournament has to offer. Defenseman Adam Clendening (Chicago, 2011) is the only defenseman under 6-foot-2 on the roster. Returnees on defense include Derek Forbort (Los Angeles, 2010) and Jon Merrill (New Jersey, 2010). On offense, Nick Bjugstad (Florida, 2010), Charlie Coyle (San Jose, 2010), Emerson Etem (Anaheim, 2010) and Jason Zucker (Minnesota, 2010) also return from last year's bronze medal-winning club.

2012 Entry Draft watch --
The top two 2012 draft eligible players on the roster are defenseman Jacob Trouba of the Under-18 National Team Development Program and forward Austin Czarnik of Miami University.

Schedule -- Dec. 26, Denmark, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Finland, 3:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Czech Republic, 3:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Canada, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).

Morreale prediction -- Can head coach Dean Blais do it again? First, the U.S. has the most experienced international and battle-tested goalie in the tournament in Campbell. Second, a tough and mobile stable of defenders will complement those experienced, gritty scorers up front. Third, the roster is stocked with leaders both on the college and major-junior level. Look for Team USA to win its second gold in three years.

Vickers prediction -- Despite a plethora of returning players from the bronze-medal winning team last year, the Americans will fall just short of their goal to medal once again. With Campbell in net, it’s hard to bet against the United States, but he will not be enough for the Americans to walk away from the tournament with their third consecutive medal.

Coach --
Raimo Helminen

Assistant coaches -- Mikko Haapakoski, Kalle Kaskinen, Lasse Sampakoski

Last year -- After placing second in Group A, the Finns dropped a 3-2 shootout decision to Switzerland in
the fifth-place game to finish sixth -- its worst showing in six years. The team's top point-producer was forward Teemu Pulkkinen, who had 9 points (three goals). Pulkkinen is also a member of this year's club.

NHL prospects -- Mikael and Markus Granlund could form quite a dynamic duo for the Finns. Mikael Granlund, chosen No. 9 by the Minnesota Wild at the 2010 Draft, might be the best player in this tournament not playing in the NHL. Markus was selected in the second round (No. 45) by the Calgary Flames last June. Forwards Joel Armia, a 2011 first-round pick (No. 16) of the Buffalo Sabres, and Pulkkinen, chosen in the fourth round (No. 111) by the Detroit Red Wings in 2010, are returnees from last year. Goalie Christopher Gibson, drafted in the second round (No. 49) by the Los Angeles Kings last June, should provide solid play between the pipes.

2012 Entry Draft watch -- The top two players to watch are London Knights defenseman Olli Maatta, who is ranked No. 3 among Ontario Hockey League skaters by NHL Central Scouting, and defenseman Ville Pokka, who is No. 2 among European skaters.

Schedule -- Dec. 26, Canada, 3:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Team USA, 3:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Denmark, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Czech Republic, 4 p.m. ET.

Morreale prediction -- The Finns may be a dark horse entering the tournament, but the Granlund brothers, Pulkkinen and Armia sure give the club offensive punch. Inexperience on the back end and in goal may play a part in the team's fifth-place finish.

Vickers prediction -- Despite icing one of the youngest teams it's ever had at the tournament, Finland will find success in its exuberance. The team will not be hurt by having brothers Mikael and Markus Granlund, possibly the tournament’s most dynamic duo, as well as  Pulkkinen on the top line, which will propel them to their first medal since 2006.
Czech Republic
Coach -- Miroslav Prerost

Assistant coaches --
Jiri Fischer, Jiri Jurik, Roman Visnak

Last year --
For the second-straight year, the Czechs finished a disappointing seventh -- it won all three games in the relegation round. The country has not finished higher than fifth the past six years.

NHL prospects --
There are two returning players on this year's roster already drafted by NHL teams, forwards Petr Straka (Columbus, No. 55, 2010) and Jakub Culek (Ottawa, No. 76, 2010).

2012 Entry Draft watch --
The absence of Halifax Mooseheads right wing Martin Frk hurts, but watch out for forwards Tomas Hertl, the top-rated forward from the Czech Republic according to NHL Central Scouting, and Kitchener Rangers left wing Radek Faksa, No. 4 among skaters in the Ontario Hockey League.

Schedule --
Dec. 27, Denmark, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Canada, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Team USA, 3:30 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Finland, 4 p.m. ET.

Morreale prediction --
The Czechs do have some talent on the roster, but the fact they're grouped with the U.S., Canada and Finland doesn't work to their advantage. Hertl and Faksa should play big minutes as they each make their case as top prospects for the 2012 Draft but the team will finish seventh.

Vickers prediction --
The Czech Republic hasn't finished better than fifth in the last six tournaments and in 2012, this team doesn't fare any better.

Coach --
Todd Bjorkstrand

Assistant coach --
Barry Smith

Last year --
Playing at the Division I level, Denmark won four of five games while outscoring the opposition, 35-14, to earn promotion to the top level.

NHL prospects --
The top player listed on the roster might be wing Nicklas Jensen (Vancouver, No. 29, 2011). In 30 games for the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League this season, Jensen has 17 goals and 35 points.

2012 Entry Draft watch --
The top blue-chip prospect on the roster is right wing Thomas Spelling of Herning. The 6-foot-2, 174-pound Spelling had 14 goals and 24 points in 21 games for his hometown team this season.

Schedule --
Dec. 26, Team USA, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 27, Czech Republic, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Canada, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Finland, 8 p.m. ET (NHLN-US).

Morreale prediction --
The country has never finished higher than 10th at the WJC. Jensen is a force on offense but it won't be enough for the team as they are forced into the relegation round.

Vickers prediction --
A young, inexperienced Denmark team will simply find itself overmatched in the tournament. Jensen will not be able to make the difference as the Danes become the subject of relegation to Division I for next year.

Follow Mike Morreale at the World Junior Championship on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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