The World Championships start this Friday in Quebec and Halifax. Here is a run down of the Preliminary Round Groups and my take on possible qualifiers for the next stage.
Belarus for me are one of these teams that are in the competition to make up the numbers. I would say that their 9th ranking flatters them a bit and they look like a sure bet for third place in this group. With the Flyers/Habs Stanley Cup game looking like a protracted series, two of their best players are unlikely to feature. The Kostitsyns have had a good season in Montreal and would certainly add to the quality of the roster. Goalie Dimitri Karipov is likely to have a very busy tournament. They should be too good for France and might catch the Swiss on a bad day but its 3rd place for me.
I cannot see anything other than a relegation round placing for the French in this group. They just do not have the quality to trouble the top seeds. One thing in their favour is Cristobal Huet, goaltender of the Washington Caps. On form he is one of the best around and may backstop Les Bleus to a close encounter with Belarus. 4th in the group.
Switzerland, as always are capable of a shock or two and with the Swedes struggling to find last years form, they might run them close at the top of the group. Again, their quality appears to be in net with Martin Gerber of Ottawa set to play. They have a lot of World Championship experience in Di Pietro and Vauclair and always entertain the crowd, however 2nd place seems just about right for them, but they will need to be wary of Belarus.
Once again the Swedes will have quality all over their roster and the Tre Krone, despite their current lack of form will still be the team to beat in this group. Notable absences this year are Forsberg , Alfredsson Zetterberg,Sundin and the Sedin’s but they always seem to get a very competitive side together. Should win the group with ease but will find it difficult to better last season’s 4th place.
Canada are expected to defend their crown on their home patch and I cannot see anything in Group B to stop them advancing as group winners. Shane Doane returns to captain the side and with Heatley, Spezza and Getzlaf now added to the already impressive roster, they ooze that championship feel . Easy 1st place for me in this group.
Latvia are third seeds in this group and finished 13th in last years competition on their own patch. Without their fanatical home support and with evergreen goalie Artus Irbe now retired, they may struggle to qualify out of this group. Key game for them will be the match up against Slovenia. They do have a lot of WC experience in the team with Vasiljevs and Sprukts returning for another championships. 3rd in this group if they concentrate against Slovenia but they will need to be at their best to avoid the relegation round for the second successive tournament.
Slovenia gained promotion to the WC main event last season and they may provide a shock or two. Top men Anze Kopitar of the LA Kings, Ivo Jan of Krefeld ( DEL), Tomas Razinger and the Rodman brothers, all have WC experience and they are likely to give Latvia many problems and might even shake up the Americans. 3rd in the group is a distinct possibility for this team.
The USA will have a mixture of young and old in their squad and are definitely capable of bettering their 5th place showing last year. Robert Esch is likely to be between the sticks and old timer Mike Modano is heading for yet another championships. With Brian Gionta and Zach Parise also declared, they will certainly be entertaining. Not sure if they have the means to beat the Canadians but 2nd place in this group should be achievable.
Without a doubt the most entertaining side in World Hockey ( ok, so I am a bit biased). Yet again they were the bridesmaids last year, falling to Canada in a thrilling final. I would expect them to win this group at half pace and just cannot see any of the other teams troubling them. Backstrom of Minnesota will be between the pipes and watch out for newbie Janne Niskalla, a name most of you will remember from his time in Manchester. He has just had his first season over the pond and picked up 45 points in 86 games for the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL. Hard man Tuomo Ruutu returns to create mayhem as their power forward. 1st place in easy street for the Finns.
Germany were over the moon at retaining their WC place last season and will be looking to improve on 9th place. However, I think they overachieved last time out and although they should have no problems getting out of this group, I cannot see them having the quality to go much further. Robert Mueller of the Cologne Sharks looks like the nominated goalie if Olaf Kolzig does not put in an appearance. Amazing that Mueller is even playing after surviving a brain tumour only 18 months ago. With the exception of Marco Sturm of the Boston Bruins, they are a team of DEL journeymen who will trouble teams now and again without having the consistency to bother the big boys. They should beat Norway and may give Slovakia a close game but 3rd is their realistic place in the group.
Norway survived relegation by the skin of their teeth last season and they will struggle again this time around. I cannot see them winning a game in the first series and a relegation struggle seems inevitable. Captain Tommy Jakobsen has played 115 championship games for his country and will be honoured at this years competition.
Many pundits dark horses for the championships, Slovakia should end the first stage in 2nd place behind Finland, however they are more than capable of shocking the Finns. With players of the quality of Chara, Gaborik and Satan, and the possibility of Hossa joining them later, they have a good mix of players. Jan Lasak is a more than capable stopper and this team may be the one to watch.
The Czechs had a very disappointing championships last time out and will want to better their 7th place. With a roster full of NHL players they should have the quality to win this group. The big test will be the game against Russia, but they will have far too much fire power for the Danes and the Italians. 1st or 2nd in the group depending on the game against their big rivals Russia.
Russia took the bronze last year, falling apart in the semi finals after blitzing all before them in the early rounds. The world’s most productive first line of Zapirov, Znoviev and Morozov of Bars Kazan will run riot against the Italians and the Danes, but might find the uncompromising Czech defence a tougher nut to crack. I expect the Red Bear to come out all guns blazing in the early rounds and again be in the reckoning for a medal. 1st or 2nd in the group depending on the game against the Czech Republic.
Danish hockey is improving by the day but the draw has not been kind to them this time around. Their key game will be against Italy again this season and a win there will take them to the next stage. Key man is likely to be Peter Hirsch, who is again backstopper for the Danes.
Italy appear to be the makeweights in this group, with seemingly no chance against the big boys of Czech Republic and Russia. They will be looking to a result against Denmark to avoid a trip to the relegation round. Known names to British fans are again Christian Borgatello ex of Dundee and speedster Jon Parco who plied his trade in Ayr. I cannot see Italy finishing above the bottom of this group and go to the relegation round to try and retain their status.
Ok that’s the preview over and the action begins on Friday May 2nd with the following games:-
Denmark vs Czech Republic
Canada vs Slovenia
Russia vs Italy
USA vs Latvia
I will send in a daily report when the competition starts, so keep your eyes on the site.
Jin "Tambo" Piper