There’s a lot at stake for USA and Canada when the 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championship gets underway in Europe on Friday. For these two powerhouse hockey nations, this year’s tournament offers both countries one final opportunity to improve on their world rankings prior to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Just over two years ago, at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, when both teams faced off against each other in a thrilling Gold Medal final, captured in overtime by Canada 3-2 on Sidney Crosby’s overtime winning goal against tournament MVP Ryan Miller.
Fast forward to the present, as neither Crosby or Miller will be representing their countries this time around, almost symbolic of how the mighty have fallen from their perch atop the IIHF world rankings. Canada and USA enter this year’s world championships ranked 5th and 6th respectively (behind Finland, Sweden, Russia and Czech Republic) and desperately need a good showing in Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden – the hosts of this year’s tournament – in order to move up the standings and secure a potentially easier draw when the next Olympics get underway in less than two years time.
For Canada, whose current world ranking is, frankly, unacceptable by their standards, they are taking this tournament seriously in hopes of reclaiming their spot atop the hockey world. Much of Canada’s ranking woes are directly tied to the Worlds; the country has been ousted by Russia in the quarterfinals in back-to-back years and hasn’t medaled since winning silver in 2009.
Losing doesn’t rest lightly on the Canadian shoulders and as a result, they are bringing a stacked roster to Europe in hopes of reclaiming gold. Even despite Crosby declining an invite, forwards John Tavares, Jordan Eberle, Corey Perry, Patrick Sharp, Ryan Getzlaf, Jamie Benn, Jeff Skinner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins headline a solid group up front, with Duncan Keith, P.K. Subban and Jay Bouwmeester anchoring the blueline. Canes’ netminder Cam Ward will shoulder the load in net, with Devan Dubnyk serving as his backup. Head Coach Brent Sutter’s biggest challenge is just figuring out a way to build chemistry and bring it all together.
The USA roster, meanwhile, won’t have their “A” lineup this year. With notables like David Backes, Dustin Brown and Zach Parise all still participating in the NHL playoffs, and Ryan Kesler declining his invitation in order to rest his aching shoulder, Head Coach Scott Gordon lacks some punch up front. Bobby Ryan, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty will be heavily leaned on to provide scoring, while Alex Goligoski and Jack Johnson are their two most notable and reliable defencemen. With Miller, Jonathan Quick and Tim Thomas – the three Team USA netminders in Vancouver 2010 – all not making the trip this year, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard will be a key to USA’s success, as he will be relied upon heavily and will need to be the difference if the USA are going to have a chance to capture gold.
USA isn’t the only country heading into the tournament shorthanded. Sweden, currently ranked #2 in the world, will be missing the Sedins, after Daniel elected to pass in his recovery from a concussion and his brother followed suit. The other host team, Finland, the top-ranked nation and defending world champs, will also be missing some key names, including Teemu Selanne, Tuomo Ruutu and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.
Normally schedule makers offer the top teams the chance to ease slowly into the tournament, with games against weaker opponents early on. That’s not the case this year, as the USA and Canada, both in group H (Helsinki), will resume their rivalry Saturday to see where they stack up against one another.
(Click here for complete Team Rosters for 2012 IIHF World Hockey Championships)