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Senators prospects going for gold at world juniors

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators prospect Mika Zibanejad and Sweden aim to end a three-decade golden drought at the world junior hockey championship in Thursday's gold-medal game against Russia at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary (Photo by Francois Laplante/HHOF-IIHF Images).
Erik Karlsson has an admittedly biased hunch about the end result.

Actually, make that two.

It's no surprise, of course, that the Swedish-born Ottawa Senators defencemen favours his homeland in tonight's gold-medal game at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, which pits the Tre Kronor against defending champion Russia at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary (8 p.m., TSN).

"I think you know the answer already," the 21-year-old Senators blueliner says with a grin when asked which side he thinks will prevail this evening.

Karlsson also believes a player Senators fans will soon become very familiar with — centre Mika Zibanejad, Ottawa's top pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft — might just have a rather big hand in helping Sweden claim its first world junior crown since 1981.

"I think he's really going to step up in the final for them," said Karlsson, who's been speaking regularly with the 18-year-old Zibanejad throughout the tournament. "It should be an interesting game."

While Sweden has won 14 medals in WJC history, only one of them has been gold, and that was more than three decades ago. Needless to say, there's a lot of pent-up desire in the Scandivianian nation to finally end that drought.

"The last couple of years, we've been so close," said Karlsson, a member of a silver-medal winning Swedish entry at the 2009 WJC played in Ottawa. "People have been really following it and the interest (back home) is really, really big right now. I think it would be a really big thing for Sweden right now to win the world junior championship."

For Senators fans, all eyes tonight will be on Zibanejad and Fredrik Claesson, a blueliner selected by Ottawa in the fifth round (126th overall) of the 2011 draft. Sens hockey management has been in Alberta for the WJC paying close attention to the efforts of the former, who spent the first nine games of the season in Ottawa before being returned to Djurgarden of the Swedish Elite League.

If the Senators have their way, Zibanejad will be highly noticeable tonight with the gold on the line. He's recorded four points — including three goals — through five games to date in the 2012 WJC.

"His confidence level is much higher than what it was (in Ottawa)," Senators assistant general manager Tim Murray observed earlier in the tournament. "He's playing the game, he's not analyzing every play and worried about his defensive responsibilities as much as he was with us. And young players tend to do that.

"They get on the ice a certain amount of time during the game and they don't want to make a mistake. That affected his game with us. We want him to be a power forward, we want him to be proactive. We don't want him to be the defensive conscience on the line, even though he has to be defenisvely responsible. He already is that. We want him finishing checks, using his size, using his speed and using his shot."

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