By Sean Hartnett
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The World Cup of Hockey will get underway this weekend in Toronto. The teams have been playing exhibitions leading up to the start of round-robin play, whetting the appetite of rabid NHL fans.
The following is a rundown of upcoming group play, nuggets on each of the individual teams and my predictions for the entire tournament.
Canada – The Canadians enter as hot favorite to be crowned champions on home ice, though a pileup of injuries are a concern. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Carter and Duncan Keith were originally selected, but will miss the tournament. Logan Couture, Ryan O’Reilly, Corey Perry and Jay Bouwmeester were added as replacements.
Though Canada’s all-around depth is formidable, replacing a 25-minute defenseman in Keith, the Art Ross Trophy runner-up in Benn and a point-per-game forward in Seguin is no easy fix.
Potential 1-3-1 power play units of: 1.) Claude Giroux, Sidney Crosby, Perry, Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, 2.) Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf and Drew Doughty is straight-up terrifying.
Starting goaltender Carey Price has looked rusty at times after not seeing game action since last November. He rebounded strongly in Wednesday’s 3-2 exhibition overtime victory over Russia. Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford are solid backup options ready to step in should Price falter.
Czech Republic – Missing injured NHLers Tomas Hertl, David Krejci and Radko Gudas could mean “Czech mate.” Specials teams have clicked in pretournament games, though even-strength defensive depth is a huge question mark.
Leaning on third-pairing NHL defensemen and untested European club blue liners isn’t a good recipe to keep the puck out of dangerous areas. Likely No. 1 goalie Michal Neuvirth is going to be a busy man between the pipes.
Europe – Team Europe boasts a strong number of Stanley Cup winners and a diverse mix of scorers, power forwards and playmakers, including Anze Kopitar, Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik and Mats Zuccarello.
Scoring shouldn’t be a problem, though the blue line looks thin and aging. Zdeno Chara, who is 39, 38-year-old Mark Streit and 35-year-old Dennis Seidenberg have taken steps back with age and could struggle against top-level speed.
Losing Frederik Andersen to injury has forced Jaroslav Halak into the starting goaltender role.
United States – Head coach John Tortorella has this group playing with all-out physicality in a system built to wear down the opposition and protect leads. It remains to be seen whether he will wear out his players with games coming in quick succession.
A group built to play sandpaper hockey over speed and generating chances could backfire. Penalty-killing has been a weakness throughout pretournament exhibitions. The United States has been shorthanded 17 times through three games and has surrendered four goals. Opponents have continued to exploit large seams left by American shorthanded units. Getting a 1-for-11 power play on track is another concern.
Leaving offense-generating stars Phil Kessel, Tyler Johnson, Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Faulk off this roster is head-scratching. While Kessel eventually underwent offseason hand surgery, he may have delayed the procedure to represent his country.
Jonathan Quick has played strong between the pipes in exhibition matches and has been named the No. 1 goaltender to start the tournament. That said, my gut says Cory Schneider would give the Americans the best chance of stealing victories.
Finland – The Finns play an in-your-face style, but are missing firepower. While 18-year-old Patrik Laine is a monster in the marking, he’s being asked to carry the Finns on the top line and first power-play unit.
Overall, this is a young roster, especially on the blue line with all defensemen aside from Sami Lepisto ranging from age 21 to 25. You get the feeling that Finland’s time could be coming given a young core that includes Laine, Aleksander Barkov, Sami Vatanen, Joonas Donskoi and Olli Maatta. But that time isn’t now.
Head coach Lauri Marjamaki has yet to choose his No. 1 goaltender, with Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne hoping to secure the role.
North America – This under-23 team is built with a non-stop motor and quick-strike scoring ability. The potential of highly-skilled youngsters, including Johnny Gaudreau, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Auston Matthews, is mouth-watering. As is the surplus of mobile defensemen who can lead the rush and unleash cannon shots. Shayne Gostisbehere can be an absolute game-changer on the power play and Morgan Rielly joins the rush like a fourth forward.
Matt Murray should get the nod as No. 1 goalie. He’s shown no signs of slowing down his exceptional netminding after leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship. The only thing holding this group back is its occasional sloppiness and inability to protect leads.
Russia – Alex Ovechkin, Artemi Panarin and Vladimir Tarasenko lead a deep collection of goal scorers. Though a thin blue line is a concern, its forwards excel at possession and shot generation.
The ability to roll out Ovechkin, Panarin, Tarasenko, Evgeni Malkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Pavel Datsyuk, Nikita Kucherov and Artem Anisimov means Russia isn’t dependent on one line carrying the load. This offensive firepower could mask any defensive deficiencies and No. 1 netminder Sergei Bobrovsky is coming off a strong performance, saving 45 of 48 shots against Canada.
Sweden – A 1-1-1 pretournament record correctly reflects how out of tune Sweden has looked heading into the group stage. Defensive miscues, frequent turnovers and a lack of overall cohesion has plagued “Tre Konor.” Starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist did not play well in Wednesday’s defeat to Team Europe, surrendering five goals on 22 shots.
This talent-rich group will need to jell quickly with Russia as its tournament-opening opponent on Sunday. Lundqvist has a history of thriving under pressure and reported to camp in the best shape he’s been in three years, trimming down to 185 pounds.
Losing Nicklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg and Alex Steen to injury are big losses, but Sweden possesses tons speed across its lineup and the strongest collection of blue liners, led by offensive juggernaut Erik Karlsson, Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman.
If things are clicking right, Sweden stands an excellent chance of winning this tournament. This group should be able to get it together once games matter.
Semifinal Round Predictions: Sweden (Group B runner-up) over Canada (Group A winner). Russia (Group B winner) over United States (Group A runner-up).
Best-of-3 Final Prediction: Russia defeats Sweden in two games.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey