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Recapturing gold a tough task for Canada at world junior hockey championship

12/22/2011 10:08 EST | Updated 02/21/2012 05:12 EST
Canada is again a contender for gold at the world junior hockey championship, but the host country will have to fight off stiff challenges from the United States, Russia and Sweden.

Canada opens the 2012 world junior tournament Sunday in Edmonton against Finland, a dark horse in the race for gold.

Canadian teams have reached the final of this tournament every year for the last decade and won half of them. Fair or not, Canadians have come to depend on seeing their country in the championship game.

So the biggest challenge Canada's 2012 edition faces is avoiding a sense of entitlement in this tournament.

On the back of the players' T-shirts during selection camp in Calgary earlier this month was the slogan "Earned, not given."

"There's no rule that we deserve gold every year," Canadian head coach Don Hay said. "Other countries want it too and there's other countries that believe they play the right way."

After a run of five straight gold, Canada lost in overtime to the U.S. in the 2010 final in Saskatoon and spectacularly collapsed in the 2011 final in Buffalo, N.Y., when Russia scored five unanswered goals in the third period to win 5-3.

But to call Canada's campaign this year "redemption" is unfair because 18 of the 22 players on this year's team did not play in Buffalo. That label could perhaps be applied to goaltender Mark Visentin, who was in net against Russia.

The Niagara IceDogs goaltender hasn't shirked from addressing that performance when reminded of it. But because of Visentin's overall experience, the starter's job is his to lose, with Scott Wedgewood of the Plymouth Whalers looking to compete.

Visentin doesn't seem to have carried baggage from Buffalo with him into Alberta.

"It's really good because we have a fresh start, a clean slate and pretty much a whole new team," Visentin said.

Canada plays its Pool B games against Finland, the Czech Republic, Denmark and the U.S. in Edmonton's Rexall Place. Defending champion Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia and Latvia play Pool A games in Calgary's Scotiabank Saddledome.

All medal-round and relegation games are in Calgary. The top team in each pool earn byes to the semifinals Jan. 3. The second and third seeds cross over and meet in quarter-finals Jan. 2. The championship and bronze-medal games are Jan. 5.

Along with Visentin, the other subplot on the Canadian team is will it have enough offensive depth? Three centres eligible to play for Canada remained in the NHL: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sean Couturier and Ryan Johansen.

Jonathan Huberdeau has hardly played since breaking a bone in his foot on Nov. 7. Canada needs the big left-winger to get his game back quickly. Winger Quinton Howden, one of four returning players from the silver-medal squad, has been hampered by concussion-like symptoms since selection camp.

The two NHL forwards on the roster — Anaheim's Devante Smith-Pelly and Tampa Bay's Brett Connolly — are expected to stand out for Canada. Smith-Pelly gave every indication in selection camp and pre-tournament games that he will be a force in the tournament.

Connolly, Howden, Visentin and forward Jaden Schwartz are the four Canadians with previous experience in the tournament.

Hay, who coached Canada to gold in 1995. chose forwards based on their abilities to excel in all facets of the game and switch roles quickly. Hay believes he has the right balance up front.

"We have a lot of offence," he insisted. "We have some very talented individuals that can create offence."

Canada's strength should be its big and talented defence. Five of the seven are first-round selections of NHL clubs and Ryan Murray of the Everett Silvertips should hear his name called early in the 2012 draft.

Canada's key game of the preliminary round is a Dec. 31 showdown against the U.S.

The Americans have the deepest lineup on paper, with seven players returning from the squad that won bronze at the 2011 tournament in Buffalo, N.Y.

The U.S. won gold under coach Dean Blais two years ago in Saskatoon and he's back behind the bench again.

When the tournament gets down to the final four, goaltending becomes magnified and the U.S. has one of the best. Jack Campbell of the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds was chosen top goaltender of the tournament in Buffalo and is in his third year on the U.S. junior team.

"That game on December 31st is going to be a pretty exciting day for both countries," Hay predicted.

Russia broke Canada's heart in Buffalo and Yevgeni Kuznetsov helped do it with three assists in the third period. The Washington Capitals prospect is back to lead Russia's bid for its first back-to-back titles since 2002-2003.

The Russians have a history of playing half-speed in the preliminary round — Canada beat them 6-3 in Buffalo — and then throwing it into high gear when it counts. Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov is a top prospect for the 2012 NHL entry draft

Sweden, who lost the bronze-medal game to the U.S., is also without a couple of key NHL players. Defenceman Adam Larsson is with the New Jersey Devils and winger Gabriel Landeskog stayed with the Colorado Avalanche.

But the Swedes still have four first-round picks in their lineup, including Mika Zibanejad who went sixth overall to the Ottawa Senators this year. They need to play their best hockey when it counts, which is the end of the tournament, and get some goaltending in order to challenge for gold.

Finland is looking for a bounce-back year after finishing sixth in Buffalo. The jet-lagged Finns lost 3-1 to Canada in a pre-tournament game. Brothers Mikael and Markus Granlund are the ones to watch on that squad.

Mikael, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, is considered perhaps the best hockey player not in the NHL this season. Markus is a second-round pick of the Calgary Flames.

Canada will have buildings of almost 20,000 people behind them and millions more watching them on television. With that support comes pressure to win, but the Canadian players expect that.

"You've just got to have fun with this journey and obviously the gold is the goal," Canadian defenceman Dougie Hamilton said. "I think we're going to work as hard as we can to achieve that.

"It's going to be an exciting ride."

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