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World Juniors

2018 World Junior Championship Group A preview

First outdoor game, between United States and Canada, could determine winner

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

The United States and Canada, the top two teams in Group A at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, will play the tournament's first outdoor game, at New Era Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, on Dec. 29 (3 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS).

Beyond the unique setting of the game, it likely will determine which team finishes first in the group.

"We'll want to make sure our players stay focused with everything that happens on the ice," Canada coach Dominique Ducharme said. "That's going to be our main discussion. We'll feel and see the ice and the stadium before the game. Once the game starts, it's taking care of what's going on in between the boards."

It will be the first game between the teams since the United States won 5-4 in a shootout in the gold-medal game of the 2017 WJC at Bell Centre in Montreal.

The 2018 WJC begins Tuesday and runs through Jan. 5, 2018, at KeyBank Center and HarborCenter. The Group A bracket also includes Finland, Slovakia and Denmark.

The United States will look to become the first team to win the gold medal in consecutive years since Canada won the last of five straight in 2009. Only three countries have won the WJC on home ice: Canada (1991, 1995, 2006, 2009, 2015), Finland (1998, 2016) and the Soviet Union (1983).

Here's a look at each Group A team, in predicted order of finish:

 

United States

Coach: Bob Motzko

2018 draft watch: Quintin Hughes, D, Michigan, BIG10; Brady Tkachuk, LW, Boston University, H-EAST; Scott Perunovich, D, Minnesota Duluth, NCHC

Schedule: Dec. 26, Denmark (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 28, Slovakia (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS2); Dec. 29, Canada (3 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 31, Finland (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS2)

Outlook: The U.S. should feature plenty of speed, power and experience. There will be seven returning players from last year's championship team: Goalies Joseph Woll (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Jake Oettinger (Dallas Stars); defensemen Adam Fox (Calgary Flames) and Ryan Lindgren (Boston Bruins); and forwards Patrick Harper (Nashville Predators), Kieffer Bellows (New York Islanders), and Joseph Anderson (New Jersey Devils), who will be the captain. "The expectation for success is high and it's a totally different team with a totally different feel," Motzko said. The top line could be left wing Casey Mittelstadt (Buffalo Sabres), center Logan Brown (Ottawa Senators), and right wing Kailer Yamamoto (Edmonton Oilers), which dominated at the World Junior Summer Showcase in August with a combined 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in five games, and had 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists) in seven games to help the U.S. win the bronze medal at the 2016 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. Motzko also could separate them by moving Mittelstadt to center on a different line to spread the offense.

Video: Jill and Mike talk about the USA World Junior Team

 

Canada

Coach: Dominique Ducharme

2018 draft watch: None

Schedule:  Dec. 26, Finland (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 27, Slovakia (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS2); Dec. 29, United States (3 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 30, Denmark (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS)

Outlook: Canada has depth, skill and speed at every position. "We're a complete team and want to be hard to play against," Ducharme said. Canada will have seven players returning from last year's silver medal-winners: Goaltender Carter Hart (Philadelphia Flyers); defensemen Jake Bean (Carolina Hurricanes), Kale Clague (Los Angeles Kings) and Dante Fabbro (Nashville Predators); and forwards Dillon Dube (Calgary Flames), Michael McLeod (New Jersey Devils) and Taylor Raddysh (Tampa Bay Lightning). The top line of center Sam Steel (Anaheim Ducks), left wing Jordon Kyrou (St. Louis Blues) and right wing Dube will be quick and productive. Hart might be the best at his position in the tournament. He had a 2.38 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in four games at the 2017 WJC. He is 13-3-1 with a 1.32 GAA, five shutouts and a .961 save percentage in 17 games for Everett of the Western Hockey League this season.

 

Finland

Coach: Jussi Ahokas

2018 draft watch: Rasmus Kupari, C, Karpat, FIN

Schedule: Dec. 26, Canada (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 28, Denmark (12 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 30, Slovakia (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 31, United States (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS2)

Outlook: Finland became the first defending gold medalist to miss the quarterfinal round the following year at the 2017 WJC. Coach Jukka Rautakorpi and his staff were fired after three successive loses in the preliminary round; Ahokas replaced him and guided Finland to a two-game sweep of Latvia in the best-of-3 relegation round. The ninth-place finish was Finland's worst in the tournament's 41-year history. Finland should have goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (Buffalo Sabres) as its No. 1, and appears very strong on defense with Miro Heiskanen (Dallas Stars), Juuso Valimaki (Calgary Flames), Olli Juolevi (Vancouver Canucks), Urho Vaakanainen (Boston Bruins) and Henri Jokiharju (Chicago Blackhawks), all of whom are first-round NHL draft picks. Offense could come from forwards Kristian Vesalainen (Winnipeg Jets), Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville Predators) and Kupari, a projected first-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft.

 

Denmark

Coach: Olaf Eller

2018 draft watch: David Madsen, RW, Vaxjo Jr., SWE-JR; Phillip Schultz, C, Rodovre, DEN

Schedule: Dec. 26, United States, (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 28, Finland (12 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 30, Canada (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 31, Slovakia (6 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN2)

Outlook: Denmark had a surprise run at the 2017 WJC, defeating Finland and the Czech Republic by identical 3-2 scores to reach the quarterfinals for the first time. Denmark had two WJC wins prior to last year, both against Switzerland. This year the team will be led by forwards Nikolaj Krag Christensen (St. Louis Blues), Jonas Rondbjerg (Vegas Golden Knights) and Joachim Blichfeld (San Jose Sharks), and defenseman Malte Setkov (Detroit Red Wings).

 

 

Slovakia

Coach: Ernest Bokros

2018 draft watch: Adam Liska, C, Kitchener, OHL

Schedule: Dec. 27, Canada (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS2); Dec. 28, United States (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS2); Dec. 30, Finland (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN, RDS); Dec. 31, Denmark (6 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN2)

Outlook: One player to keep an eye on for Slovakia is forward Marian Studenic, a fifth-round pick (No. 143) by the New Jersey Devils in the 2017 NHL Draft. He has 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 32 games for Hamilton of the Ontario Hockey League. Potential starting goaltender David Hrenak is a freshman at St. Cloud State University, where Motzko coaches, and in six games is 5-1-0 with a 1.82 GAA and .947 save percentage.

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