Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2013 IIHF World Junior Championships Preview

With the absence of an NHL season to date, some of the best hockey that will be played all season kicks off today at the 2013 World Junior Tournament in Ufa, Russia, a two hour flight from Moscow. The teams participating in this year's edition are defending champions Sweden, their nordic neighbors Finland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and hard trying Latvia all comprising Group A, which will be held at the 3,500 seat Sports Palace.

2013 WJC logo, 2013 WJC logo

Group B is comprised of hosts Russia, perennial contenders Canada, Slovakia, the United States and recently promoted Germany, who will be looking to remain in the Top Division for next year. Group B will be held at the Ufa Arena, the 7,950 seat home to Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the Kontinental Hockey League.

Each group will play a round-robin schedule from today through New Year's Eve. After taking New Year's Day off, the top three teams in each group will begin the playoff round, which will commence with the Quarterfinals on January 2nd, which will see the second place team in each group facing off against the third place team from the opposite group.

The two group winners will await the Quarterfinal winners in January 3rd's Semifinals, with the losers playing for the bronze medal and the winners advancing to the Championship Final, with both games taking place on Saturday, January 5th, with all playoff round games taking place at the Ufa Arena, conveniently located less than 4.5 kilometers from the Sports Palace.

2013 WJC mascot, 2013 WJC mascot
2013 tournament mascot Teamka

Meanwhile, the fourth and fifth placed teams in the Preliminary Round will be grouped in the Relegation Round, with games taking place on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th, with the last placed team being relegated to Division I Group A for 2014.

In what should be the finest lineup of players since the last time the NHL missed a season in 2005, players who would normally be active in the NHL include Canadian Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov of Russia. In all, 32 first round draft picks from the 2011 and 2012 drafts are participating in this year's edition.

RNH Canada, RNH Canada
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

In Group A, Sweden and Finland will be aiming for the top spot and the bye into the Semifinals. Sweden is returning six players from last year's gold medal winning club, including team captain Filip Forsberg, 11th overall pick of the Washington Capitals in 2011.

Finland returns eight players from last year, and also has one of the most talked about prospects for the upcoming 2013 draft, Alexsander Barkov (yes, he's Finnish), one of the top prospects in Europe.

Alexsander Barkov Finland, Alexsander Barkov Finland
Alexsander Barkov

The Czech Republic may not have the horses to win Group A, but they will be planning on qualifying for the Playoff Round ahead of Switzerland and Latvia, who both will see avoiding the Relegation Round as a triumph in it's own right.

In Group B, clearly the Group of Death, Canada will be looking to regain the gold medal for the first time since 2009, having then won five consecutive championships, but none in the previous three years. Secondary to their quest to return to the top, Canada will  be looking to continue their streak of winning a medal now 14 years in a row, dating back to 1999. Nathan MacKinnon will be the center of attention for the scouts in attendance as he will likely be one of the first two picks in the 2013 draft, while defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Boston Bruins) provides Canada with leadership along with Nugent-Hopkins.

Hamilton Canada, Hamilton Canada
Dougie Hamilton

The Russians do not have quite the same domination of the medal podium as Canada, but they won silver last year (a 1-0 loss in overtime) and gold in 2011, with medals in nine of the last 11 years, including golds in 2002 and 2003. With Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko, the Russians will be looking to rise to the top in front of their home fans to become the first host to win the championship since 2009.

The United States is looking to capitalize on their dominance at the Under-18 championships, having won the last four titles and six of the previous eight, but have yet to translate that success at the Under-20 World Juniors, with just two bronze and a gold during that same time period. Seth Jones will also be the focus of the scouts as he is the other vying to be the top choice in the 2013 draft. It will be unexpected if the Americans can win Group B, but they should be a safe bet to advance to the playoffs despite being throttled by the Finns in their final tune-up game.

Seth Jones USA, Seth Jones USA
Seth Jones

Slovakia lacks the depth of the United States and must focus on trying to not give away any points in the standings unnecessarily while taking as many out of their games against Canada, Russia and the US as possible.

Germany, with just one NHL draft pick, a fourth rounder, on their entire roster,  are destined for the Relegation Round, where they must focus on staying in the Top Division for next season. Their game against Slovakia, and their expected matchup against Latvia, will be the key games for Germany.

In the United States, all the USA games, as well as six additional preliminary non-US games, and the entire medal round will be broadcast on the NHL Network.

Canadians can expect the same coverage of their squad from TSN. who will also add six non-Canadian games in the Preliminary Round to their schedule as well as all the medal round games.

Unfortunately for those in North America, Ufa is exactly 12 hours different for those in the Central Time Zone, putting the games in Ufa on at 1:30 AM, 3:30 AM, 6:00 AM and 8:00 AM. For those unable to stay awake overnight or with job and school requirements in the morning, both networks will air repeats later in the day if one is able to avoid the gottaknowitnow world of the internet and Bob McKenzie on Twitter in particular!

Wether you watch the games live a zero in the morning or on DVR later in the day, be sure to check out what may very well be the best hockey played on the planet this season.

Today's featured jersey is a 2012 Russia National Team Yevgeni Kuznetsov jersey. Kuznetsov was the tournament's leading scorer last year in Canada with 6 goals and 7 assists for 13 points in 7 games and was named the tournament's Best Forward and Most Valuable Player.

 Since the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, Nike has been the official supplier of jerseys to the top tournaments sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation. In addition to the World Cup, this includes the Olympics and various levels of the World Championships.

This particular style has been used by this year's hosts Russia since the 2010 World Juniors.

2012 Russia jersey, 2012 Russia jersey
photo courtesy of Classic Auctions

Today's video selection is Mika Zibanejad scoring the gold medal winning goal in overtime of last year's championship final.

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