World Championship: Group D Preview

Better late than never...  some of these were written before the action started, but finished just now.

Czech Republic

Pre-Championship Rank:  4
Total WC Medals: 6 gold, 1 silver, 3 bronze (6 golds, 12 silver, 13 bronze as Czechoslovakia)
Total Olympic Medals: 1 gold, 1 bronze (4 silver, 4 bronze as Czechoslovakia)
Canada/World Cup: 1976 Runner-up as Czechoslovakia
Most Recent Championship: 2010 World Championship
2010 Olympic Finish: 7th
2010 World Championship: Gold

The Czechs had been experiencing some down years internationally, but last year's surprising gold medal helped alleviate some of the pain.  A bizarre play led to their ouster at the 2010 Olympics, when defenseman Pavel Kubina lost his helmet and, according to IIHF rules, had to immediately leave the playing surface.  His man was left wide open for the winning goal on the play.  While that loss was certainly frustrating, it isn't nearly as frustrating as the consistently poor results at the junior level for the Czechs.  Right now, it looks like the Czechs are heading into a territory in a few years where they won't be very competitive for medals.  But for now, they remain in the hunt.

Up front, you'll see more and more KHL players leading the charge for the Czechs:  Roman Cervenka, Tomas Rolinek, Jaromir Jagr and Jiri Novotony are all here.  NHL players like Martin Havlat, Tomas Plekanec, Michael Frolik and Jakub Voracek give the Czechs one of the best overall groups at the tournament, as defending last year's title is seen as a source of national pride amongst the nation's players.  The defence will be led by Marek Zidlicky, Radek Martinek, Lukas Krajicek and KHL star Karel Rachunek.  In goal, Tomas Vokoun turned down the invite, so it's up to Atlanta Thrashers rookie Ondrej Pavelec to carry the load, and if he falters, it will be 24 year old KHL goalie Jakub Stepanek's time to shine.

Anything short of a medal will be seen as a failure for this group after last year's success.  And it should be:  this team has the ability to finish in the top 3, even repeat as winners.  However, there are likely five teams that are all in for a medal this year, and someone will be inevitably disappointed.

Denmark Dk_medium

Pre-Championship Rank:  13
Total WC Medals: none
Total Olympic Medals: Have never qualified
Canada/World Cup: never invited
Most Recent Championship: none, Finished 8th in 2010 World Championship
2010 Olympic Finish: didn't qualify, 15th overall
2010 World Championship: 8th

Denmark finished last year with their highest ever placement, reaching the quarterfinals for the first time, before being ousted by their more powerful Scandinavian brethren from Sweden.  It was a banner year for the program, even though they disappointedly lost out to Norway for one of the final 3 Olympic spots.  The country is producing more NHLers than they ever have, which both helps their program and sometimes hurts it:  they can't use their NHL players in the Olympic qualification tournaments, so the goal will be to get enough NHL players to earn an automatic qualification spot (top 9) for future games. 

Speaking of NHLers, this year the Danes were hit hard with a lot of injuries, plus the fallout form the NHL playoffs.  Mikkel Boedker is here, but so many aren't:  Frans Nielsen, Lars Eller, Jannick Hansen, and Peter Regin, for example.  Instead, the team that largely plays together for international breaks in the European hockey season will be the crew they rely on.  That means a lot of the likes of Morten Madsen, Mads Christensen, and Nichlas Hardt.  Veteran Morten Green takes over the captaincy duties from the retired Jesper Daamgaard.  On defence, a fairly young crew is led by Mikkel's brother Mads Bødker, Stefan Lassen, veteran Daniel Nielsen and teenager Jesper Jensen (not to be confused with the Jesper Jensen playing centre).  In goal is the team's real strength:  Frederik Andersen returns, and Patrick Galbraith will likely see some action as well.

Reaching the quarterfinals again would be huge for the program, and could set them up for a top 9 world ranking come 2012, meaning automatic Olympic qualification.  They'll need some help on their way, however, and play in a tough group this year.  The relegation round is a very realistic possibility.

Finland Fi_medium

Pre-Tournament Rank:  5
Total WC Medals: 1 gold, 6 silver, 3 bronze
Total Olympic Medals: 2 silver, 3 bronze
Canada/World Cup: 2004 Runners-up
Most Recent Championship: 1995 World Championship
2010 Olympic Finish: bronze
2010 World Championship: 6th

Never count out the Finns, the international hockey community warns.  However, Finnish fans often curse the team's apparent lack of luck in big games.  Indeed, unfortunate bounces have plagued the national team's records past, as the team sits with a single major championship to its name, back in 1995.  That was a watershed moment for Finnish hockey, but it hasn't been equaled since.  The nation still produces its fair share of high end players, but not nearly enough to compensate for its small population.  And with Sweden getting stronger, the task for Finland is getting tougher internationally.

Up front, the team is being led by Mikko Koivu and Tuomo Ruutu, their two prominent NHLers.  Behind them, it's a mixture of European professionals, former NHLers, and one bright prospect in Mikael Granlund.  Granlund was a star for the Kanada-malje champions HIFK Helsinki this past season, and he could be coming overseas to join Koivu with the Minnesota Wild as soon as next season.  Granlund is by far the country's top offensive prospect in years, and he's already establishing himself as a rising international star.  Players like Niko Kapanen, Petteri Nokelainen, and Jarkko Immonen will be looked up for strong two-way play.  On defense, Finland will rely on Janne Niskala for PP duty, young NHLers like Sami Lepisto and Anssi Samela, as well as solid veterans like Ossi Väänänen and Lasse Kukkonen.  The team actually started the tournament very defence heavy, activating 8 d-men out of the gate.  In goal, the team didn't choose any of their NHL talent, instead going with the European combination of Petri Vehanen and Teemu Lassila. 

Medalling is the goal, and reaching the quarterfinals is a bare minimum.  Any medal will do, and there is a level of frustration with their lack of medals in recent World Championships, although the Olympic bronze medal last year definitely helped make up for that frustration.

Latvia Lv_medium

Pre-Tournament Rank:  12
Total WC Medals: none
Total Olympic medals: none
Canada/World Cup: never invited
Most Recent Championship: none, finished 7th in World Championship three times (most recent 2009)
2010 Olympic Finish: 12th
2010 World Championship: 11th


Latvian fans are always the life of the party that is the World Championships, but the hardcore fandom can be a bit too much at times for the team to live up to.  The years of Arturs Irbe and Sergei Zholtok (RIP) are gone, but things are looking up for the small nation's hockey program.  Dinamo Riga has been a competitive KHL team, with minimal Russian imports on the team.  Indeed, the majority of Dinamo gets to play on the Latvian national team, and their farm program (HK Riga of the MHL) has been a success as well.  Very few national teams have such a familiarity to it, and that helps.  Playing for Latvia isn't so much an All-Star team trying to learn an effective new system, it's top players joining an established core of a team that is essentially just finishing out the season together.  

Up front, Latvia is led by team captain and former NHLer Herbert Vasiljevs, to go with Riga players like Aleksandrs Nizivijs, Gints Meija, and Mikelis Redlihs.  The team has also decided to bring in a couple of youngsters who had success on their WJC teams in recent years in Roberts Bukarts and Ronalds Kenins.  This isn't a team that will wow with offensive wizardry, it's a team that will have to claw for every goal it can muster.  They will play their top players a lot, but they'll play them in defensive situations as much as offensive ones.  On defense, Arturs Kulda was supposed to be a centerpiece, but his suspension has put the spotlight on others.  Sandis Ozolins isn't here, but Oskars Cibulskis and Krisjanis Redlihs are.  Look for them to log a lot of minutes.  In goal, the team will turn to veteran Edgars Masalskis, who played for Yurga of the KHL this past year.

The key game is obviously Wednesday against Denmark.  Sweden and Finland the team can scare, but Denmark is really the only team they can be expected to beat in this group.  Qualifying for the quarterfinals remains a bit of a longshot, but the team could use another appearance there to push for an automatic qualification into Sochi 2014.  If they don't reach a top 9 World Ranking by 2012, that shouldn't be a huge concern, as they'll have almost their entire team available for qualification tournaments.

Schedule:

  • Apr 30:  Finland 5, Denmark 1
  • Apr 30:  Czech Republic 4, Latvia 2
  • May 2:  Czech Republic 6, Denmark 0
  • May 2:  Latvia 2, Finland 3 (SO)
  • May 4:  Denmark vs. Latvia (4:15 PM local, 10:15 AM EST)
  • May 4:  Finland vs. Czech Republic (8:15 PM local, 2:15 PM EST)

Prediction:  1.  Czech Republic, 2. Finland, 3. Denmark, 4. Latvia

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