World Junior Hockey Championship: Team Canada/Russia Preview

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World Junior Hockey Championship: Team Canada/Russia Preview
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Olivier Roy will get the start for Canada today against Russia

As Team Canada gets set to take on the Russians this afternoon, just about every Canadian on the planet will be watching. The World Junior Hockey Championship has become a Christmas tradition for many Canadians and, for some, is bigger than the Stanley Cup.

Canada’s record at the WJC is astounding. Since its inception in 1977, Canada has brought home a total of 26 medals, including 15 gold, seven silver and four bronze—second all-time to Russia’s/Soviet Union’s 28 medals.

Canada is the only team to win five consecutive gold medals, a feat they accomplished twice—1993-1997 and, most recently, 2005-2009.

The 2010 WJC ended with Team USA defeating Team Canada, 6-5 in overtime. John Carlson’s overtime winner will not be forgotten by those who donned the red and white for Canada last year, nor does it sit lightly with this year's team.

Canada’s rivalry with the United States (which is favored to win the gold at this year's WJC) is just heating up, but some of the best WJC battles were played between Russia and Canada, including 12 battles for gold.

Canada has a record of 7-5 in those gold-medal games, including three in a row in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Tough, Skilled and Passionate, Vladimir Tarasenko has it all for Russia

For Russia, a return to gold is a bit of a pipe dream. Russia hasn’t won gold since 2003, but they have earned three silvers (all losses to Canada) and two bronze medals over the past six years at the WJC.

Russia will be icing a team that features a number of former NHL draft picks, including Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis Blues), Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington Capitals) and Maxim Kitsyn (Los Angeles Kings) up front, with Dmitri Orlov (Washington Capitals) heading up Russia’s defense, while Igor Bobkov (Anaheim Ducks) will be solid between the pipes.

Make no mistake about it, despite not having a large group of potential NHL players on their roster and struggling to go all the way recently, Russia is no joke and, given the history between them, Russia should give Canada everything they can handle this afternoon.

Bobkov has struggled with the London Knights of the OHL this season, but played well in last year's WJC, going 3-3 in six games with a 2.45 goals against average and a .930 save percentage.

Missing from this year's edition of Team Russia will be forward Kirill Kabanov who, despite his talents, was left off the team.

Russia will ice a young team, one that will likely feature a ton of speed, skill and passing—which is exactly what we expect from Russia.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Brett Connolly is suffering from concussion symptoms

Tarasenko scored four goals in last year's tournament and is widely regarded as one of the tournament's strongest players. Suffice to say, Russia will likely go only as far as Tarasenko pushes them. Fact is, this Russian club is thin up front and, outside of Orlov, their defense is lacking.

Canada, while not the favorite to win gold this year, will ice a very deep team that will include 15 former first-round draft picks, including Brayden Schenn, Jared Cowen, Brett Connolly, Carter Ashton and many others.

This is a hardworking team, one that, while not stacked as deep on defense as we are used to, has plenty of firepower up front and appears to be solid between the pipes with Olivier Roy—who is expected to get the start against Russia today— and Mark Visentin.

I had the pleasure of watching Visentin play against Finland on Thursday night—he played a solid game, had little to no chance on both goals he gave up and appeared unfazed when challenged by Finland’s top snipers.

Roy is also a very solid, well-balanced goaltender, who should play well against the Russians despite an extended rest.

It’s no secret that Canada feels it will be icing a balanced attack. Canada may not have one standout player on their roster, but they are well-rounded and feature a number of players who can get it done at both ends of the ice.

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Brayden Schenn will be given every opportunity to lead this team offensively, as will Zack Kassian and Jaden Schwartz—who may emerge as this year's sleeper for Canada.

To be fair, outside of Schenn, Kassian and Brett Connolly (who has been nursing an injury), just about anyone could emerge as Canada’s hero up front, including the likes of Sean Couturier, Carter Ashton, Quinton Howden or perhaps Ryan Johansen—who has been solid for Canada thus far.

On the backend, Canada’s captain Ryan Ellis is expected to supply offense both five-on-five and on the power play, where Ellis is expected to be the quarterback.

Most of the heavy lifting will be done by the likes of Jared Cowan and Calvin de Hann—both of whom have been playing heavy minutes thus far, especially Cowen, who looked to be out on the ice all night against Finland.

Canada, Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Norway will all be in the same division, which makes today’s tilt between Canada and Russia all the more important. It’s a tough division, featuring (in my mind) three of the top four teams in the tournament (Canada, Russia, Sweden).

Look for Canada to emerge victorious today in what could be a close game, or if Bobkov is off his game between the pipes for Russia, a blowout. I will go down the middle on this one and call it a close game with Canada winning by a score of 4-2.

Go-Canada-Go!

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