Sunday, December 26, 2010
Today kicks off the IIHF 2011 World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, New York where the 2010 champions from the United States will be looking to defend their title on home ice.
The World Juniors have become a much anticipated annual event, particularly in Canada, and anybody who's anybody has played in the tournament on their road to the NHL, dating back to Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mario Lemeiux, Steve Yzerman, Alexander Mogilny, Sergei Fedorov, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano, Pavel Bure, Jaromir Jagr and Peter Forsberg through current NHL stars Jarome Iginla, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Alexander Oveckin, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Johnathan Toews and Patrick Kane, making it a must-see event each year.
The ten teams in this year's edition are divided into two groups of five and each team will play the other four teams in it's group once each in the Preliminary Round, with the top three advancing to the Playoff Round. With so few games determining each team's fate, no one can afford to take a night off as each and every game is critical to each team's chances.
For the unfortunate four clubs who finish in the bottom two of their groups, they will be placed in the Relegation Round. Following a round-robin schedule among the four, the bottom two teams of the group will be demoted to the Division I level for 2012 and will need to earn their way back up to the Top Division, which can only be achieved by winning a championship in Division I. Second place earns you nothing but another season at the Division I level. This relegation format ensures that nearly every game matters in the World Juniors and the games that determine which clubs stay up can be very exciting affairs when two countries are battling with survival on the line. We strongly encourage those in attendance take in the final day of the relegation round if the placings have not already been determined at that point. Spirited games in the much more homey secondary arena can provide some terrific competition in a small town or collegiate atmosphere that differs greatly from the environment more polished main rink and is a recommended part of the World Junior Tournament experience.
Once in the Playoff Round, the two group winners will receive a bye directly into the semifinals as a reward, while the second place team in Group A will face the third place team in Group B and vice-versa, with those two quarterfinal games taking place on January 2nd.
The two quarterfinal winners advance to face the group winners, who will enjoy the advantage of two days of rest, in the semi finals on January 3rd. The semifinal losers will meet for the bronze medal on January 5th with the winners meeting for the gold medal later that evening.
Thanks to some unexpected results in recent tournaments, the usual even distribution of familiar hockey powers in each group has been thrown out the window for 2011. Group A consists of the United States, Switzerland, who finished a strong fourth in 2010, Finland, Slovakia and recently promoted Germany.
Group B on the other hand, has been declared "The Group of Death" and is stacked with Canada, Sweden, Russia, who were classified a disappointing 6th in 2010, the Czech Republic, who shockingly found themselves in the Relegation Round in 2010, and underdogs Norway.
In Group A, the Americans are favored to advance and will be looking to earn one of the coveted byes into the semifinals. Finland and Switzerland are also expected to advance to the Playoff Round and must avoid giving away points, or worse, being upset by either Slovakia or Germany. The Slovaks goal will be to avoid the relegation round, and to do so, must upset one of the favored three teams and steal a point by getting to overtime against one of the other two.
Germany's goal for 2011 will be to maintain their place in the Top Division by surviving the Relegation Round. Their game against Slovakia on December 27th will be a key opportunity to gain points towards that end should Slovakia be the other team placed in the Relegation Round, as the game between the two teams from each group that are placed in the Relegation Round will carry over to the Relegation Round standings.
Group B is obviously a lot more complicated, as annual championship contenders Canada, Sweden, who have strongly re-emerged from a down period with three consecutive medal placings, Russia, who will not want a repeat of last year's disappointing placing following five consecutive finishes in the medals, and the Czech Republic, will all slug it out for the bye awarded to the group winner, with one of those four guaranteed a place in the fight to avoid relegation.
Poor Norway will be in for a rough go and will most certainly be hoping one of the four teams ranked above them will be having a down year and that they can take some points out of the game against the club that will join them in the relegation round for a shot at unlikely survival.
Canada put together a dominant run of five consecutive titles from 2005 to 2009, but their program is a victim of it's own success in breeding top quality players, as tournament eligible players Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly (Colorado), Tyler Seguin (Boston), Jeff Skinner (Carolina), Evander Kane (Atlanta), Taylor Hall (Edmonton) and Kyle Clifford (Los Angeles) will not take part due to having found gainful employment in the NHL. Still, 16 of the 22 Canadian players are already first round draft picks in the NHL. Once again, similar to 2005 when the United States hosted the tournament in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the proximity of the tournament to Canada, this time less than four miles from the Canadian border, should ensure the Canadians will feel right at home playing in front of tens of thousands of red-clad supporters waving the Maple Leaf each time they take to the ice.
The host United States has eight players returning from the team that won gold in overtime to break Canada's streak last year. Goaltender Jack Campbell, defenseman John Ramage and forwards Ryan Bourque, Jerry D'Amigo, Chris Kreider, Jeremy Morin, Kyle Palmieri and Jason Zucker all are back in an attempt to capture a second consecutive gold, this time on home ice.
The tournament begins with four games today, with Germany taking on Switzerland in the opening game at 12:30 PM (all times eastern) in the first of three games at the 18,000 seat HSBC Arena in Buffalo.
The NHL Network in the United States will be replaying last year's gold medal game between the United States and Canada at 2 PM (following replays of the USA's 2010 quarterfinal and semifinal games) as a prelude to their airing of the all-important second game on the schedule between Canada and Russia at 4 PM, also in Buffalo. The game will be carried in Canada by TSN.
Also starting at 4 PM, Norway opens against Sweden at the 2,100 seat Dwyer Arena on the Niagara University campus and the day is capped off by the United States beginning it's championship defense with a stiff challenge from Finland, which will be televised by the NHL Network in the US and on TSN2 in Canada at 6 PM.
Fans in attendance in Buffalo will have the luxury of being able to attend any game they choose since the two arenas are located just 16 miles apart, unlike some other years when the two host arenas have been several hours drive between them. With the large number of games compressed into such a small schedule, the second arena can often find itself hosting some terrific matchups, such as Sweden vs. Russia on December 28th and the Czech Republic vs. Russia on December 31st in a more personal atmosphere than the professional sized main rink has to offer. We highly recommend taking in one game at the secondary arena during the Preliminary Round each year when possible.
In the United States, the NHL Network will be airing all four of the Preliminary Round games for both the United States and Canada, as well as the game on Thursday between Sweden and the Czech Republic at 3 PM. With each game for the US and Canada of the preliminary round being aired, it means each team in the tournament will be on TV at least once.
Once the Playoff Round begins, all six games on January 2nd, 3rd and 5th will be aired through the gold medal final.
For viewers in Canada, the four Canadian Preliminary Round games, as well as the US vs. Finland on December 26th (8 PM - TSN 2), Sweden vs. Russia on December 28th (7 PM), both Sweden vs. the Czech Republic (3 PM) and Germany vs. the United States (7 PM) on December 30th and the United States vs. Switzerland on December 31st (8 PM) will be aired prior to their coverage of the six Playoff Round contests.
In a nice bit of traditional scheduling, the tournament always takes off New Year's Day between the Preliminary Round and the commencement of the playoffs, avoiding any conflict with the now annual NHL Winter Classic, which just also happens to take place less than four hours drive down the freeway in Pittsburgh for the more ambitious (and financially well off) ones in attendance in Buffalo.
Today's featured jersey is a 2004 United States National Team Zach Parise jersey from the first American team to ever capture a gold medal at the World Junior Tournament, which took place in Helsinki, Finland. The United States won their group by defeating Austria, Slovakia, Sweden and Russia before defeating Finland and then Canada in the final to claim the championship.
Parise led the US with five goals and 11 points on his way to being named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
This style of jersey was first used by the United States at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and remained in use through the 2005 World Junior Tournament.
Here are extended highlights from the 2004 World Juniors when the United States captured the gold medal thanks to an errant clearing attempt by Canadian goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.
This next highlight is the gold medal winning goal in overtime by American John Carlson from last year's World Juniors, the second title for this year's hosts the United States.