Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Finns thump Latvia

Aaltonen scored twice for Finland and added an assist. Rasmus Ristolainen had a goal and a helper, and Artturi Lehkonen and Markus Granlund added singles. Joel Armia chipped in two assists.

Unfortunately, Aaltonen had to leave the game after a third-period blueline collision where his right ankle appeared to get twisted.

Nikolajs Jelisejevs replied for Latvia, which lost 9-4 to Sweden to kick off last year’s tournament.

Finnish goalie Joonas Korpisalo outdueled his Latvian counterpart Elvis Merzlikins as Finland outshot Latvia 44-12.

Coach Harri Rindell's crew, who defeated Canada 3-2 and the United States 5-1 in pre-tournament exhibitions, didn’t do anything to hurt their growing reputation as a medal contender. Finland hasn’t taken a medal at the World Juniors since 2006’s bronze in Vancouver.

It took just 1:54 for Finland to open the scoring, as Lehkonen rushed to the net and tipped in a Ville Pokka feed.

The Latvians drew even at 8:25 when Jelisejevs swatted the puck past Korpisalo during a goalmouth scramble

At 12:23, the Finns made it 2-1 on a sweet Aaltonen tip off Ristolainen’s blueline shot. Just over three minutes later, working with the man advantage, Aaltonen capitalized on a sneaky behind-the-net feed from Joel Armia, beating Merzlikins on the doorstep for a 3-1 lead.

The second period saw both teams parading to the penalty box. Near the game’s midpoint, Finland withstood some quality Latvian power play pressure as Armia and Miikka Salomäki took back-to-back minors.

With just under seven minutes left in the second, Markus Granlund’s close-range one-timer set up by Armia on the power play gave Finland a three-goal lead.

After Aaltonen won a draw in the Latvian zone, Ristolainen powered a blast past Merzlikins on the stick side for a 5-1 edge with 42 seconds left in the middle frame.

In the third period, Salomäki got in behind the Latvian defence for a good chance, but fell and slid harmlessly into Merzlikins.

According to Finnish general manager Timo Bäckman, his players started the day with a brisk walk outside at 8 am before breakfast. This game wasn't a complete walk in the park for the bigger, faster, better-organized Finns, but there was never any doubt who was in command.

Finland's Aleksander Barkov, arguably the top European prospect for the next NHL draft, had a quiet outing in his first game of the 2013 tournament.

Latvia is without forward Zemgus Girgensons, who led his country with two goals at last year’s tournament. A 2012 first-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres (14th overall), he was not released by their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, to participate in Ufa.

On Thursday, the Latvians have a possible must-win game against fellow underdog Switzerland.

The Swiss came eighth and Latvia ninth in Calgary in 2012. Finland’s next test is Friday against the Czech Republic, which finished fifth last year.

Russia favored over US, Canada in WJC Group B

After spoiling Canadian hockey fans with five straight gold medals at the IIHF World Junior Championship, the Canadian National Junior Team hasn't produced a memorable finish for its rabid followers the past three years.
First there was a 6-5 overtime loss to the United States in the 2010 gold-medal match in Saskatchewan, followed by an inexcusable meltdown in the third period against the Russians in the 2011 gold-medal game in Buffalo when Canada yielded five unanswered goals on 10 shots in a 5-3 defeat.
Last year marked the first time in 11 years Canada would not play for the gold medal at the 10-team competition after dropping a 6-5 semifinal decision to Russia in Calgary. Russia would lose to Sweden in overtime, 1-0, in the gold-medal game, while Canada took home the bronze with a 4-0 win over Finland.
One of the most memorable quotes following Russia's victory over Canada was provided by captain Yevgeni Kuznetsov.
"We just won, and that question [of who is the better team] has become clear, so we're stronger than Canada," Kuznetsov said. "We're happy. I'm glad that Canada will not win gold this year."
There's no question Canada would enjoy ending the heartache on Russian soil with this year's tournament held in Ufa.
Canada will join Russia, the United States, Slovakia and Germany in Group B at the 2013 WJC. Preliminary-round games start Wednesday at 7,950-seat Ufa Arena.
Here's a breakdown of the five teams competing in Group B. The top-seeded team from the group will earn a bye into the semifinals of the medal round. The second- and third-place teams play cross-over quarterfinal contests with Group A.
Coach: Steve Spott
Last year: Canada opened the scoring in every game of preliminary-round play en route to earning the top seed in Group B. In four victories, it outscored the opposition, 26-5, but was defeated by Russia in its first game of the medal round, 6-5. Canada earned the bronze medal by defeating Finland.

 Dec. 26, Germany, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Slovakia, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, United States, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Russia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).2013 NHL Draft watch:
 There are three draft-eligible players on the roster, which is a first for the Canadian National Junior Team. Linemates Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League are first-year eligible, and J.C. Lipon of the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League is in his final year of eligibility after being passed over in the past two drafts. MacKinnon and Drouin are rated No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, among skaters in the QMJHL on Central Scouting's preliminary league list.
Outlook: The NHL work stoppage has enabled Canada to stockpile some exceptional assets. Take, for instance, the addition of Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who will serve as captain. In addition to the 2012 Calder Trophy runner-up, there's Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers), Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets), Ryan Strome (New York Islanders), Dougie Hamilton(Boston Bruins) and Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh Penguins). Forward Mark McNeill (Chicago Blackhawks) was a late addition when Charles Hudon (Montreal Canadiens) suffered an injury. Unlike last year's team, the Canadians are solid up the middle, but as has been the case in recent tournaments, goaltending -- Jordan Binnington (St. Louis Blues); Jake Paterson (Detroit Red Wings); Malcolm Subban (Boston Bruins) -- will make or break the team. Look for Canada to finish third in Group B.
Coach: Ernst Hofner
Last year: Germany is back in the top division after winning the gold medal in the Division I, Group A tournament. In five victories, the Germans outscored the opposition, 34-9.
2013 NHL Draft watch: There is one top prospect on the roster: Muskegon Lumberjacks forward Frederik Tiffels. The 6-foot, 185-pound wing is No. 25 in Central Scouting's ranking of United States Hockey League players. Tiffels spent some time this summer playing with the Under-20 German National Team, in addition to earning roles for the U-18, U-17 and U-16 German National squads in select tournaments.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Canada, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 27, United States, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Russia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Slovakia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook: In addition to Tiffels, the player to watch for the Germans is forward Tobias Rieder, who stars for the OHL's Kitchener Rangers and was a 2012 fourth-round draft pick (No. 114) of theEdmonton Oilers. The Germans have several players back from the squad that earned promotion, but no returning goaltenders, so anticipate a fifth-place finish in Group B.

 Mikhail VarnakovRUSSIA
Last year: After an emotional victory over Canada in the semifinals of the medal round, Russia dropped that 1-0 decision to Sweden in the final. The Russians rallied for three straight medal-round victories against Finland, Sweden and Canada but couldn't solve Swedish goalie Johan Gustafsson, who stopped all 17 shots in his direction in the final. Russia finished second in Group A with three victories and a 4-3 overtime loss to Sweden, outscoring its foes, 23-5.
2013 NHL Draft watch: A number of top prospects will be featured, including forward Valeri Nichushkin. Nichushkin, a 6-foot-4, 196-pound right wing, is rated No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary ranking of Russian draft-eligible skaters.
"[Nichushkin] is a big, strong two-way winger," Central Scouting Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told "He's tough to stop when driving to the net from either wing -- a defenseman's nightmare in one-on-one situations when at top speed. He handles the puck well in traffic, makes good decisions in those situations. [He] has a high overall skill level and moves well for a big guy, smooth hands, good playmaker."
Schedule: Dec. 26, Slovakia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, United States, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 29, Germany, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Canada, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook: Edmonton Oilers prospect Nail Yakupov has a strong supporting cast around him with Mikhail Grigorenko (Buffalo Sabres), Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Alexander Khokhlachev(Boston Bruins). Offensive-defensemanNikita Nesterov and goalie Andrei Vasilevski, highly regarded prospects of the Lightning, should play vital roles for the host country. Russia also has goalie Andrei Makarov (Buffalo Sabres) returning between the pipes. The star-studded lineup on home ice makes Russia the odds-on favorite to finish first in Group B.
"Russia is always strong and this year's team is as strong as the gold medal-winning group two years ago," Stubb said. "The goaltending is better now."
Coach: Ernest Bokros
Last year: The Slovaks finished sixth after placing third in Group A behind Sweden and Russia. The country dropped an 8-5 decision to Finland in the quarterfinals.
2013 NHL Draft watch: The top draft-eligible skater, according to Central Scouting's preliminary league rankings, is forward Marko Dano, who plays in the KHL for Slovan Bratislava and is rated seventh among skaters playing in Russia. According to Stubb, Dano is tops among the Slovaks and is a player who will surprise at this tournament.
"He has a good combination of speed, stick work and smarts," Stubb said. "He plays a steady, two-way game and gives a consistent effort on every shift."
Schedule: Dec. 26, Russia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Canada, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Germany, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, United States, 5 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook: The Slovaks offer a roster dominated by players from the Bratislava club team that plays several games in the elite league. The exception is defenseman Peter Ceresnák of the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes. He is the only player on the roster to be drafted by an NHL team. The 6-foot-3, 219-pound blueliner was selected by the New York Rangers in the sixth round (No. 172) in 2011. Look for Slovakia to finish fourth in Group B.

Last year: The U.S. team is coming off a seventh-place finish, its worst showing since finishing eighth in 1999. An 11-3 victory over Denmark in its opening game was followed by losses to Finland (4-1), Czech Republic (5-2) and Canada (3-2). The Americans needed a 12-2 victory over Latvia in their opener of the relegation round in order to secure a position in the top division of this year's tournament.
2013 NHL Draft watch: There are two promising 2013 draft prospects on the roster: defenseman Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL and forward Ryan Hartman of the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL. Jones likely would have been a member of last year's team if not for a shoulder injury he sustained in the last exhibition game. The son of former NBA player Popeye Jones is rated No. 1 among WHL skaters in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary league rankings. Over the summer, Jones (6-foot-3.5, 208 pounds) served as captain for the U.S. team at the World Under-18 Championship, totaling eight points in six games as the United States won the gold medal. Hartman is No. 11 among skaters in the OHL. The versatile 5-11, 187-pound forward made a big impression on the U.S. managerial team at training camp.
Schedule: Dec. 27, Germany, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 28, Russia, 9 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 30, Canada, 4:30 a.m. ET (NHLN-US); Dec. 31, Slovakia, 5 a.m. ET (NHLN-US).
Outlook: The only time last year's finish was even discussed during training camp was when the media inquired about it. The biggest difference in this year's group is the enthusiasm and energy each player is willing to exert every practice and each shift. The three returnees -- defensemanJacob Trouba, forward J.T. Miller and goaltender John Gibson -- are ready to lead by example. Expect the Americans to rebound in a big way and earn a second-place finish in Group B.

Sweden, Finland ahead of pack in WJC Group A

It took Sweden 31 years to win its second World Junior Championship gold medal. Will the third take a little less time?
Sweden enters the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship as the defending champion after its 1-0 overtime defeat of Russia in last year's gold-medal game. Six players return from that team, and among the missing are both goaltenders; a pair of top defensemen; and offensive star Mika Zibanejad, who scored the golden goal in Alberta.
Sweden does have a few important players returning, among them captain Filip Forsberg, a top prospect for the Washington Capitals.
"Sweden does have a team that can win again," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told "That team has a lot of talent and skill."
They're not the only team in Group A that fits that description.
Finland features a lineup that includes a pair of potential 2013 NHL Draft first-round picks: Center Alexander Barkov likely will go in the top five in June, and could challenge for No. 1, and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is tough and talented at both ends of the ice.
The Czech Republic could be a dark-horse medal contender, while Switzerland and Latvia will do their best to avoid relegation-round play.
Preliminary-round games start Dec. 26, with all Group A games played in the 3,900-seat Ufa Sports Palace.
Here's a breakdown of the five teams competing in Group A. The top-seeded team from the group will earn a bye into the semifinals of the medal round. The second- and third-place teams play cross-over quarterfinal contests with Group B.

Coach: Miroslav Prerost
Last year: An upset of the United States in the preliminary round helped the Czechs advance to the medal round for the first time since 2008. They lost 2-1 to Russia in overtime in the quarterfinals, but beat Slovakia 5-2 in the placement game for their best finish since 2008.
2013 NHL Draft watch: Jan Stencel, a 5-foot-9, 174-pound defenseman, is No. 2 in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary ranking of Czech skaters. He has 11 points and a plus-19 rating in 21 games with HC Vitkovice in the top Czech league. Goalie Patrik Bartosak, who plays for the Red Deer Rebels, is fourth in the Western Hockey League with a 2.35 goals-against average and third with a .931 save percentage.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Sweden, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Finland, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Latvia, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 31, Switzerland, 2:30 a.m. ET.
Outlook: With seven players returning, including top defenseman David Musil and likely No. 1 center Radek Faksa, the Czech Republic should at least return to the medal round. A return to the medal stand for the first time since 2005 is not out of the question.
Coach: Leonids Tambijevs
Last year: Latvia was outscored 31-8 while going winless in the preliminary round. Its only win came in overtime in its final game against Denmark to finish ninth.
2013 NHL Draft watch: Left wing Roberts Lipsbergs, who plays for the Seattle Thunderbirds, leads all Western Hockey League first-year players with 17 goals and 32 points in 34 games. Right wing Nikita Jevpalovs has 15 points and a plus-12 rating in 33 games for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Finland, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 27, Switzerland, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 29, Sweden, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Czech Republic, 7 a.m. ET.
Outlook: Buffalo Sabres prospect Zemgus Girgensons, the 14th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft, will be Latvia's best player. However, even with Girgensons, Lipsbergs and Jevpalovs (who scored the OT goal against Denmark), it's hard to envision Latvia making it out of preliminary-round play. The goal should be more than one win in the relegation round.
Coach: Harri Rindell
Last year: After losing to Canada in its tournament opener, Finland didn't lose again until a 3-2 setback to Sweden in the semifinals. Finland finished fourth after losing 4-0 to Canada in the bronze-medal game.
2013 NHL Draft watch: Alexander Barkov is a likely top-five pick in June. Central Scouting's top-ranked Finnish skater is dominating SM-liiga, the top Finnish professional league, with 14 goals and 28 points in 32 games. Defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen is considered a top-end all-round defenseman who can dominate at both ends of the rink.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Latvia, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Czech Republic, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Switzerland, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 31, Sweden, 7 a.m. ET.
Outlook: Finland could be the surprise team of the tournament, and its matchup with Sweden on New Year's Eve likely will decide the winner of Group A and which team gets a bye into the semifinals. Finland has talent and depth at all positions and will be well-coached. A medal is a serious possibility.

 Roger RonnbergSWEDEN
Last year: Mika Zibanejad scored the only goal of the gold-medal game against Russia 10:09 into overtime to give Sweden its first World Junior Championship title since 1981. Sweden had won seven silver medals since its prior gold.
2013 NHL Draft watch: Center Elias Lindholm is a potential top-10 pick already playing well against men (21 points in 32 games) with Brynas in the Swedish Elite League. Right wing Nick Sorensen, who plays for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, is scoring at near a point-per-game pace, and is No. 16 in Central Scouting's ranking of QMJHL skaters.
Schedule: Dec. 26, Czech Republic, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Switzerland, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 29, Latvia, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 31, Finland, 7 a.m. ET.
Outlook: Six players from last year's title team return, meaning Sweden will have mostly a new squad to defend its title. However, there is a ton of talent, topped by captain and Washington Capitals prospect Filip Forsberg. The forward should supply the scoring that last year's captain, Zibanejad, provided. The goaltending is untested, and the team won't be as deep. Another gold medal is a possibility, but the road to get there will be far more difficult.
Coach: Sean Simpson
Last year: After two straight years in the medal round, Switzerland won once in the preliminary round. However, its three losses were by a total of six goals. It came back to defeat Latvia and Denmark in the relegation round and finished eighth.
2013 NHL Draft watch: After a run of skilled forwards, keep an eye on a pair of big defensemen. Eliot Antonietti (6-foot-4, 224 pounds) already is a full-time player in the country's top league with Geneve, and is No. 3 in Central Scouting's preliminary ranking of Swiss skaters. Mirco Muller (6-3.25, 184), who plays for the Everett Silvertips in the WHL, is second among the league's first-year blueliners with 18 points in 34 games. He's No. 7 in Central Scouting's ranking of WHL skaters.
Schedule: Dec. 27, Latvia, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 28, Sweden, 7 a.m. ET; Dec. 30, Finland, 2:30 a.m. ET; Dec. 31, Czech Republic, 2:30 a.m. ET.
Outlook: The eighth-place finish might not look good on paper, but Switzerland took Sweden to a shootout and still had a chance at the medal round before a 6-4 loss to Slovakia in a game it led 4-2 early in the third period. Though it won't have top star Sven Baertschi, the Swiss do return 12 players from a team that was less than 20 minutes from a spot in the medal round. Other teams around them have improved, so a trip to the medal round this time could be tough.