Will team Russia silence the opposition for the third time in four years? Canada and Russia are both built for gold medal finishes at this holiday season's World Junior Championships in Grand Forks, North Dakota, which means that one of the clubs will be leaving the country very disappointed. We would like to see that disappointment multiplied with these two clubs meeting in the gold medal game for the fourth time in seven years, reviving a hockey rivalry that spans nearly half a century.
For better or for worse, we roll out the predictions:
Russia will rebound from last year's fifth place disappointment in dominant fashion. Star prospects Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Malkin are a year older and a year better while the line of Alexander Radulov, Roman Voloshenko and Mikhail Yunkov were dynamite against the QMJHL at the CHL-Russia challenge. The difference maker for this roster is the improved blueline that combines size and experience.
Why They Will Win: At exhibition Russia was experimenting with playing snipers Radulov, Ovechkin and Malkin on separate units which forebodes for three spectacular lines. Radulov is expected to click with his usual line mates but Ovechkin needs to have the same success he's had in the past with Dmitri Pestunov while Malkin and Parshin could play sweet music together. The gold medal will be theirs if Anton Khudobin can prove that the strong recovery he displayed against the QMJHL stars was not a fluke.
Why They Will Lose: The Russian blueliners should display chemistry and solid physical play, however mobility could be a question mark. This is especially prevalent in the likes of Dmitri Megalinsky and Anton Belov, the latter of the two is a plodding backwards skater. Speedy opponents could take advantage if their feet don't move quickly enough.
Star Power: If Russia lets loose Ovechkin, Malkin and Radulov on three separate lines that will mean that the opposing defense corps could be out of gas by the middle of the second period. They will put up big numbers at the tournament.
Under The Radar: Little Denis Parshin should be one of the tournament's leading scorers. He's a bullish winger with soft hands and an aggressive style. Dmitri Vorobiev will be the club's most reliable and most physical rearguard.
Prediction: Unlike in some years past, offensive chemistry should not be a problem in this tournament for Russia. These guys have played together before - some are on the same Superleague team. This is the country to beat.
Canada should jell early and breeze through the round robin of the tournament, especially with the United States and Russia playing in the other (A) group. Early chemistry, however, has not always been the country's best friend in the event as in the past three tournaments Canada dominated early only to underwhelm in the final.
Why They Will Win: The best blueline in the tournament belongs to Canada. It is the finest combination of size and all-around play in the World Juniors since Russia's dominant back end wall in Halifax. Dion Phaneuf and Shea Weber could be the catalysts of a number of highlight-reel body slams - Phaneuf made headlines last year for his crushing open-ice hit on Rostislav Olesz. Coach Brent Sutter will encourage his forwards to play a power forechecking game that has been so successful for Canada in the last three tournaments. Ryan Getzlaf, Anthony Stewart and Jeff Carter are big and rangy, and will win the lion's share of board battles.
Why They Will Lose: There are two likely ways Canada can lose which they'll try to avoid. Canada's up-tempo physical style often causes highly emotional (and mostly successful) starts, but these kids frequently wind up emptying the tank too early. Brent Sutter's task will be to channel his team's energy levels appropriately. Goaltending, while not a problematic side, is not proven at the international level. Jeff Glass is undoubtedly their man unless he struggles in the round robin. He is smooth and economical but against the likes of Russia and the United States he will have to be spectacular.
Star Power: All eyes will be on draft-eligible Sidney Crosby - no North American prospect has had this much hype on his side since Eric Lindros. He will play with NHL-tested Patrice Bergeron, perhaps a marriage made in heaven. Dion Phaneuf is the best blueline prospect in the World.
Under The Radar: The quiet heroes for Canada may wind up being captain Mike Richards, blueliner Danny Syvret and the endless ball of energy Colin Fraser. Look for Fraser as this team's true energizer in the spirit of Jordin Tootoo.
Prediction: There is greater skepticism surrounding Canada's chances this year. Regardless this is as good a chance as they're going to get to break the seven-year gold-less stretch.
The defending gold medalists are hungry and quite capable of repeating as such. Last year's top tournament goalie Alvaro Montoya is back which ensures that the team will start out with very good confidence. The home crowd at Grand Forks could boost the team... or unnerve them - pick one of the two.
Why They Will Win: Montoya. If he's on his game he could steal this tournament and looking at the two countries above, he'll probably have to if they are to win. This is not to take away from teammates like Patrick O'Sullivan, Ryan Suter and Rob Schremp. This team is just as capable as Canada and Russia to put the pucks into the net but will desperately need the likes of Mike Brown, Shawn Weller and Jacob Dowell to create space for smaller snipers like O'Sullivan and Callahan. If the checkers prove to be successful the States may surprise with a repeat.
Why They Will Lose: United States does not match up size-wise to Canada and the United States, but they did try and add as many big bodies as they could (which explains the snub of Jack Johnson in favour of the bigger Brian Lee).
Star Power:Phil Kessel is probably the finest pure sniper on the roster but is too young to play a major role. Ryan Suter and Alex Goligoski are the staples on the blueline - neither have the frames to match Phaneuf and Weber but both are packages of skill and defensive prowess.
Under The Radar:Chris Bourque, the son of Hall-of-Famer Ray Bourque, is one of the more intriguing names in the tournament. Watch for him to really use his size to create space and time for himself and his teammates. He is strong and thick despite his lack of height. T.J. Hensick is a speedy sparkplug while the relentless Mike Brown will be unleashed to do a lot of physical dirty work.
Prediction: They should arrive in the semi-finals but will have to over-achieve to wear the gold around their necks for the second time in history.
The Swedes had a fighting chance in the final of the 1996 tournament against Canada but since then have not stood on the podium. It all could change this year as Sweden finally has the goaltending and defense to compliment their offense. The only problem is that there are at least three more countries that are stacked with talent.
Why They Will Win: This is a well-balanced team but does not pack enough at any facet to overwhelm Canada or Russia. This will be a confident team coming in due to its goaltending - Christopher Heino-Lindberg and David Rautio are pro-tested and rock-solid between the pipes. The only real concern there is as to which of them to start. This team has a chance to upset the aforementioned giants if Loui Eriksson builds on his impressive World Juniors from last year and the noted prima donna Robert Nilsson starts playing like he cares. Per Savilahti-Nagander and captain Nicklas Grossman will be the staples defensively. Both are huge, strong and rangy. They'll have to step up and dominate.
Why They Will Lose: The Swedes are not on par with the favorites in terms of grit and forechecking strength. There are solid forecheckers here like David Fredriksson and a towering presence in Linus Videll but no real bangers. Nilsson will need a breakout performance, though Carl Soderberg could compensate in that regard. The Malmo sniper has drawn raves this year not just for his production but also for his aggressiveness and backchecking prowess.
Star Power: Look for 'king' Loui Eriksson to be the most dangerous player on the ice - he's a better skater than either Nilsson or Soderberg. Johan Fransson will be the club's main puck carrier and should log major minutes.
Under The Radar: Draft-eligible Nicklas Bergfors will get modest minutes and should chip in with some points. He is fast, gifted and drives the net. Tall pivot Mattias Karlsson surprised some by making the roster - he is only 17 and is not very well known (save for this site) for the upcoming draft.
Prediction: We predict a 'close-but-no-cigar' scenario here, but in tournament action anything can happen.
Don't be surprised to see the Slovaks to hang in there even with the elite clubs of the tournament. The club comes in with two internationally experienced netminders, a solid defense and a collection of gifted forwards.
Why They Will Win: Would be a surprise but don't count them out from upsetting some clubs. Halak has been clutch before - most notably in Under-18 action - and when he in on his game he is one the better young goalies out there. Andrej Meszaros has to show end-to-end skills and Boris Valabik would have to use his size (all 6-foot-7 inches of it) to intimidate. The Slovaks have guys who can put the puck into the net, most notably Owen Sound's Stefan Ruzicka, Branislav Fabry and draft-eligible Marek Zagrapan.
Why They Willl Lose: The forward depth a little thin past the top two lines. The Slovaks are also lacking a big power forward presence here who could dictate the action.
Star Power: The blueline can match up with anyone's - Valabik, Meszaros, Ivan Baranka, Andrej Sekera, Juraj Liska and Michal Sersen have size and range. This should be the heart of the team. At forward, Ruzicka is the most like candidate to lead the club in scoring.
Under The Radar: Watch out for Ladislav Scurko - he is a strong, aggressive forward who works hard at both ends of the ice. He should provide the requisite energy for this team to complement the scorers.
Prediction: No one is expecting the Slovaks to do much but themselves. They'll come into the tournament with much less pressure than other teams and could just wind up with a medal when it's all played and done.
6. Czech Republic
After four years of total hockey domination ('98-'01) the Czech Republic has gone through three down years on the international spectrum. This could change in this tournament but do not count on it. Marek Schwarz will have to come in and prove that his inconsistent play in the WHL so far this season has been an aberration but he no longer instills the kind of confidence he did coming into the World Juniors last year.
Why They Will Win: It has been a few years since a Czech team truly outworked their opponents. This year's team will have to show an aggressive style that was missing in the past. The potential is there - Olesz is big, rangy and thrives when he gets his frame involved. Top prospect rearguard Ladislav Smid has made great strides in improving his physical play. The key to the puzzle remains Schwarz - the team will go as far as he will take them.
Why They Will Lose: Olesz has yet to prove he can dominate on the scoreboard, but there is no indication that he can carry the club on his back. Petruzalek and Kaspar will be two key offensive players but both slowed down significantly with the Ottawa 67's after a hot start to begin the season. Both will have to show improved giddy-up on their feet.
Star Power: The big points will come off the sticks of Smid, Olesz, Kaspar and Petruzalek. A real catalyst could be David Krejci ? he is an energetic and quick winger who is effective at playing in traffic.
Under The Radar:Michael Frolik is a projected top-10 selection for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. If this team struggles to put up points look for him to get some playing time. He has very good, size, range and vision.
Prediction: We don't see this as the team to pull the Czech Republic out of its World Junior funk.
Why could this team finish last among the top-seven nations? Consider this - in the last two Under-18 championships, Finland has been forced to the relegation round after faltering in the round robin. To boot, the Finns looked ineffective against Canada in exhibition and much less physical than the average Finnish national team we are accustomed to.
Why They Will Win: They won't - read below.
Why They Will Lose: This is mostly a one-line team. It's a heck of a line though - Lauri Tukonen, Petteri Nokelainen and Lauri Korpikoski comprise a trio that can challenge any country in the tournament. Thereafter things become thin. Optimists will point to grinders Aki Seitsonen and Masi Marjamaki as solid contributors. They should prevent this team from not getting dominated entirely. Tuukka Rask, while a budding stud goalie, is only 17 years old and may wind up in over his head.
Star Power: The top line of course and of interest to draft followers will be potential first round blueliners Teemu Laakso and Risto Korhonen. Laakso will be counted on to handle the playmaking duties with Ville Mantymaa. Korhonen may be the club's most physical rearguard.
Under The Radar: Just like with Frolik with the Czech team, all scouts' eyes will be fixed firmly on Jesse Joensuu - the country's top prospect for the 2006 draft. He is sturdy, fast and has soft hands. Looks for him to chip in with a few points.
Prediction: The best players on this team will still be eligible to play at this tournament next year. This year they'll just have to watch and learn.
The Other Three
The Swiss normally put their best foot forward and compete effectively. They have an experienced netminder in Reto Berra who should keep them in games. Phillippe Furrer is a solid prospect and will have to shoulder the load on the back end with Philippe Seydoux on the sidelines. The top scorers for the team will be Roman Wick and Kevin Romy.
The Germans are typically well-coached but usually have few, if any, standout prospects. Look for goalie Thomas Greiss - he is a poised netminder with good quickness and a quick glove hand. Marcus Kink is a thick winger who plays the physical game well and has a good shot. Frank Hordler impresses us on the blueline. He gets involved with his frame even though he is not very big.
We're anxious to see this team for any hidden gems - there are always a few mystery players of interest on Belorussian teams. Among the players to watch here are the Kostitsyns: Andrei and Sergei. Andrei is the attraction while Sergei is eligible for the upcoming NHL draft. Both are pure offensive talents who skate very well. AHL'er Konstantin Zakharov is another familiar name and has played with the older Kostitsyn before. Sergei Kolasau is 6-4, 200-pound rearguard with intriguing puck tools. He was drafted by Detroit in the fifth round last year.