By Chipp Reid
A year after losing to Canada in the final, the Swedish Under-20 hockey team is once more gunning for the gold medal and once more, Canada stands in the way.
Sweden had the best offense in the tournament last year when it lost in overtime in the final. The “Baby Kronor” boast Mikael Backlund, a first-round NHL draft pick of the Calgary Flames, and Los Angeles Kings forward Oscar Moller. The Kings released Moller so he could play in the tournament.
Canada has eight players on its squad that play in NHL.
Most of Sweden’s team plays in the Elitserien, although aside from Backlund and Moller, nine other players are NHL draft picks.
Sweden plays in the toughest group, facing Russia, Finland as well as Slovakia and Latvia. Russia and Finland figure to give Sweden its toughest tests. Sweden opened the tournament Dec. 26 by beating Finland 3-1, then plays Slovakia Dec. 28, Latvia Dec. 29 and Russia Dec. 31.
Sweden defensively will rely on defenseman Victor Hedman. The 18-year-old currently plays for MoDo in the Elitserien and hockey scouts say Hedman is John Tavares's main rival to go first overall in the 2009 NHL draft. Tavares is Canada’s top player and the most well-known prospect in the tournament.
In goal, Sweden is likely to go with Brynas net minder Jacob Markstrom, a 2008 Florida Panthers draft pick.
In addition to Hedman, Sweden’s blue line corps includes two more NHL draft picks, Eric Karlsson of Frolunda (Ottawa) and Niklas Torp of HV 71 (Montreal).
Up front, Backlund and Moller are Sweden’s one-two punch, but not the Baby Kronor’s only weapons. The New Jersey Devils in 2008 selected Mattias Tedenby from HV 71, while Detroit pick Joakim Alexandersson of Frolunda, Ottawa pick Andre Peterson of HV 71, Atlanta pick Nicklas Lasu of Frolunda, David Ullstrom of HV 71, a New York Islanders selection and Boras HC forward Simon Hjalmarsson, a St. Louis pick, should all see plenty of shifts.
If the 209 tournament is anything like 2008, Sweden and Canada should meet once more for the gold. The Canadians have a much clearer path, at least to the semifinals.
Canada, the winner of four straight titles, opens the 2009 world junior championship Friday in Ottawa against the Czech Republic. The Canadians' pool is the easier of the two with the Czechs, Germany, Kazakhstan and the Americans their opponents in the preliminary round.
Finishing in the top three and advancing to the medal round shouldn't be a problem for the defending champions. The pivotal game of the round robin for Canada will be its New Year's Eve matchup with the U.S., as it will likely determine which country finishes first in that group and gets the bye to the semifinal.
The smaller North American ice surface gives Canada a minor advantage. The dimensions aren't daunting, however, to Europeans who already play junior or pro on this continent.
One of the major subplots to the tournament is the attention on Canadian center Tavares and Swedish defenseman Hedman. Tavares, 18, can stake his claim as the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL draft with his performance in Ottawa as could Hedman and if the two countries meet in the final, the battle between the two could decide which country wins the gold.
The Russians have the next strongest team, with forwards Nikita Filatov, this year's No. 6 pick, and Maxim Mayorov who both play for the Columbus Blue Jackets' farm team.
While the Under-20s are gearing up, their older counterparts took it on the chin in the second event of the four-leg Euro Hockey Tour.
A Swedish team of all Elitserien players lost to Russia 6-2 Dec. 20 to finish last in the Channel One Cup in Moscow.
Russia dominated from the start and scored three of its goals on power plays as it easily secured its fifth straight title in the tournament.
Alexey Mikhnov put Russia ahead with a short-handed goal on a solo effort at 17:21, beating goalie Johan Backlund in the upper left corner.
Aleksey Tereshchenko made it 2-0 on a power play midway through the second period, and Vitaly Artyukhov added a third on another power play four minutes later.
Danis Zaripov and Sergei Mozyakin then scored within the first two minutes of the third to make it 5-0 and put the game away. Johan Akerman and Jimmie Eriksson scored Sweden's consolation goals, with Denis Kulyash adding another shorthanded goal for Russia in between.
Russia, which won the world championship title in May for the first time since 1993, extended its unbeaten streak to 22 games since February.
The European Hockey Tour consists of four tournaments in Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic and Sweden. Russia, two-time defending tour champion, won the Karjala Cup in Finland in November and leads the standings with 17 points. The Czech Republic is second with eight, followed by Finland, one point behind, while Sweden is last with four.
The Channel One Cup is a successor of the Izvestia Cup, which started 41 years ago. It was later called the Baltika Cup and then the ROSNO Cup, and is now named after the state-run TV broadcaster.
Alexey Mikhnov tucks the puck behind Mikael Backlund to give Russia a 1-0 lead Dec. 21 in the final game of the Channel One Cup. Sweden lost 6-2.