World Championship Preview: Group C

Austria At_medium

Pre-Championship Rank:  14
Total WC Medals: 2 bronze
Total Olympic Medals: none
World/Canada Cup: never invited
Most Recent Championship: Won 1927 European Championship
2010 Olympic Finish: Did not qualify, 13th overall
2010 World Championship: Gold at Division 1, Group A (17th place)


Austria is another one of the older European hockey nations, and with an alpine geography they're well accustomed to playing winter sports.  However, hockey has never really caught on, and has been a secondary sport.  That's changing a bit, as the Austrian based EBEL is one of the few Central European leagues that is growing in appeal and quality.  Still, the nation's top player didn't become that way by playing in the EBEL, he did so by coming to North America and going through the NCAA.  The Austrians don't particularly care about that fact, they're just happy that Thomas Vanek's NHL season ended in time for him to join the team for the preliminary round. 

Vanek will be leading the forward group, and team in general, who are made almost exclusively up of Austrian league players.  Veteran Thomas Koch will probably draw in as the team's top centre, after being the top Austrian born scorer in the EBEL this year for the wealthiest team, Red Bull Salzburg.  The Raffl brothers, Michael and Thomas, will also be counted on.  Thomas played half the season with Luleå of the Elitserien, and the younger Michael is scheduled to head to Sweden next year, playing with Leksand of the Allsvenskan.  On defence, the team has one naturalized Canadian veteran in Darcy Werenka, who never made the NHL but kicked around in the AHL, IHL, SM-Liiga and DEL before moving to Austria for good in 2003.  This is the 37 year old's 4th appearance with the national team.  A surprise ommission was former U20 star Stefan Ulmer, who I guess is considered a little to green for the big show.  He played regular minutes with Lugano of the NLA.  Goaltending used to be the realm of former NHLer Reinhard Divis, but this year the torch has been passed, with EBEL veteran Jürgen Penker the likely starter.

Austria will try and play tough against the Americans and Norwegians, looking to scratch a few points to avoid heading to the relegation round.  Getting further than that is highly unlikely.

Norway No_medium

Pre-Championship Rank:  11
Total WC Medals: none
Total Olympic Medals: none
World/Canada Cup: never invited
Most Recent Championship: none, finished 4th in 1951 World Championships
2010 Olympic Finish: 10th
2010 World Championship: 9th

Norway has always been in the shadow of their Nordic neighbours in Sweden and Finland, but in recent years the country has made some gains.  Many of Norway's top players are leaving the country to play in Sweden, North America and even Russia.  The team has a couple of well known forwards to international fans in Patrick Thoreson and Mats Zuccarello Aasen, but neither are in Slovakia.  Zuccarello has a broken hand, while Thoresen decided to spend the next few weeks with his family, after being away from them for 22 of the past 24 months.  It's a big blow, as Zuccarello was the Elitserien MVP last year and finished his NHL rookie season, while Thoresen is one of the KHL's brightest stars, helping Salavat Yulaev Ufa to the Gagarin Cup this year. 

So that leaves an unheralded crew of forwards to lead the way offensively.  They're essentially down their top line, so it's unsure who will step up for the team in their absence.  Per-Åge Skrøder will be the obvious choice, as he's the only player who scored regularly in the Elitserien for MODO, which has become a bit of a hotspot for Norwegian talent.  Martin Røymark is another who will be counted on, while brothers Ken-Andre and Mathis Olimb will be looked on for secondary scoring.  On defence, things are looking better.  Former NHLer Ole-Kristian Tollefson and current NHLer Jonas Holøs will be the go to guys, while Lars Løkken Østli will be featured prominently as well.  In goal, it's the carpenter Pål Grotnes that will be back in goal for the team.

Sorry, Twitter, no more Tore Vikingstad, who retired from the team last year.  He'd still be a top player for Norway if he played after a successful season in Germany.

Norway's key game will be against Austria, and the team has shown great resiliency at this tournament, staying up the past five years and only once in that time being put into the relegation round.  But without their top stars up front, can they maintain this progress?

Sweden Se_medium

Pre-Championship Rank:  3
Total WC Medals: 8 gold, 18 silver, 16 bronze
Total Olympic Medals: 2 gold, 2 silver, 4 bronze
World/Canada Cup: 1984 Runners-up
Most Recent Championship: 2006 Double Gold (Olympics, World Championship)
2010 Olympic Finish: 5th
2010 World Championship: Bronze

Sweden is a global power, and even as a well established nation, they've proven to be on the rise in recent years.  Some would argue they're set to overtake Russia as the dominant European nation, but the World Championship level hasn't born out that success in recent years.  Indeed, their golden generation even underachieved in the eyes of a lot of Swedish fans, and though that generation closed out with the double gold in 2006, there is a bit of a time lag for their new crop of impressive junior players to reach the pinnacle at the senior level.  The team has been in the bronze medal game the past four World Championships, but missed the medals completely at the 2010 Olympics.  Soon this bridesmaid will be the bride again, and this year's roster offers a peak into how that will happen.  Can it happen this year is the bigger question.

Rickard Wallin may be the captain, but he'll be looked at as a checking forward this year.  Young stars like Magnus Pääjärvi, Mattias Tendenby, Patrik Berglund and Mikael Backlund are on this team for a simple reason:  scoring goals.  Pääjärvi was the tournament's top player last year, but was a bit of a victim of the numbers game in Edmonton this past year as a rookie, rarely playing in scoring situations.  Still, he has an impressive skill set and will likely be a key player in both the NHL and the international scene for the next decade or longer.  NHL star Loui Eriksson will be the team's most reliable offensive player, while Euro league scorers like Robert Nilsson and Martin Thörnberg give Sweden more depth than a lot of the teams at this tournament.  On defense, NHL players Nicklas Grossman and Carl Gunnarsson will be looked upon for big minutes, while teenager Oliver Ekman-Larsson will also play a prominent role. In goal, Erik Ersberg and Viktor Fasth were two of the best goalies in Europe this past year, and both could be in the NHL next year as a result.

Sweden is a legitimate contender for the gold, and I'm not too concerned about the young age of the players.  There doesn't sound like a lot of ringers coming in from the NHL late, but we'll see, it's still early.  This is Par Marts' first year as the Tre Kronor head coach, and he'll be heavily scrutinized as all Swedish coaches are.

United States of America Us_medium

Pre-Championship Rank:  6
Total WC Medals: 2 gold, 9 silver, 5 bronze
Total Olympic Medals: 2 gold, 8 silver, 1 bronze
World/Canada Cup: 1996 Champion, 1991 Runner-up
Most Recent Championship: 1996 World Cup
2010 Olympic Finish: Silver
2010 World Championship: 13th


This tournament isn't very high on Americans radar, both for fans and players.  USA Hockey does the best they can with the tournament, offering it as a bit of a farm team for the Olympic team, breaking in young players who are either new professionals or still in junior or college.  It also eyes some depth NHL players to play similar roles for the team, and this year isn't much different.

The big gets on this team are the NHL rookies:  Derek Stepan returns to a USA uniform for the first time since captaining the WJC gold medal team in 2010, while Nick Palmieri will also be looked at for offence despite his lack of experience.  On defence, the trio of Cam Fowler, Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan McDonagh show an early eye towards 2014.  However, it's not all kids:  Blake Wheeler will be counted on for goals up front, as will Ryan Shannon.  On the blueline, Mark Stuart was named team captain and will be counted on in defensive situations, and Mike Komisarek is getting an opportunity to play for the stars and stripes after missing the 2010 Olympics with an injury.  Ty Conklin is a veteran Team USA goalie, and the goalie of record for the country's last WC medal in 2004 (bronze).  However, former WJC gold medalists Al Montoya and Jack Campbell are also around, showing a continuity in the USA Hockey program. 

Chris Peters of United States of Hockey does it better than I could.  I agree with him, this team isn't likely to challenge for a medal, but a quarterfinal berth is almost needed at this point for 2014 Olympic qualificaiton. 

Schedule

  • Apr. 30:  USA vs. Austria (4:15 PM local, 10:15 AM EST)
  • Apr. 30:  Norway vs. Sweden (8:15 PM local, 2:15 PM EST)
  • May 2:  USA vs. Norway (4:15 PM local, 10:15 AM EST)
  • May 2:  Sweden vs. Austria (8:15 PM local, 2:15 PM EST)
  • May 4:  Austria vs. Norway (4:15 PM local, 10:15 AM EST)
  • May 4:  Sweden vs. USA (8:15 PM local, 2:15 PM EST)

Prediction:  1.  Sweden, 2.  USA, 3.  Austria, 4.  Norway


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