With virtually every professional and international competition (besides the NHL playoffs) complete, the world’s best will assemble in Czechia for the 79th IIHF World Championship, looking to assert their hockey supremacy and punch their ticket to the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Playing in the capital, Prague, is Group A, comprised of the host Czechs, Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, Latvia, France, Germany and Austria. While Tre Kronor are currently ranked #1 in the world, their initial roster received only limited NHL help from the likes of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jhonas Enroth, as major stars like Henrik Zetterberg, the Sedin twins and Henrik Lundqvist are unavailable. The Czechs now feature a roster bolstered by the likes of sniper Jakub Voráček and goaltending star Ondřej Pavelec, and having a re-energized Jaromír Jágr playing in his native country can only help his team seek their first Gold since 2010. And while Canada’s initial roster seemed somewhat lackluster upon first announcement, the addition of Sidney Crosby will drastically change Canada’s fortunes, as they become a serious contender with Sid The Kid at the helm, in search of the Triple Gold Club.
Group B, playing in Ostrava, is made up of nearby Slovakia, defending champions Russia, Finland, the United States, Norway, Belarus, Denmark and Slovenia. The Russians bring forward a KHL-dominant roster to defend their crown, including ten players from this year’s Gagarin Cup, and are bolstered in net by the tandem of Sergei Bobrovski and Anton Khudobin. Finland will try to improve on its bronze medal finish with the likes of snipers Aleksandr Barkov and Jussi Jokinen, supported in net by the recently-eliminated Pekka Rinne. And Slovakia, playing just across the border, will surely have thousands of fans spill into Ostrava to watch the always-surprising Slovaks contend, although they are missing key anchors like Jaroslav Halák, Marián Hossa and Zdeno Chára.
Of course, there is always the possibility for a dark horse to emerge, from perennial mid-level threats like Switzerland or Norway, to tournament minnows like Austria or Slovenia. But more than just the title is on the line this year, as the finish of this tournament will finalize the IIHF Ranking, and the top eight countries in the updated May rankings will automatically qualify for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea.
From the perspective of the IHLC, a few interesting facts related to this year’s World Championship:
– Sweden has not entered the Worlds with the IHLC since 2001, holding the title for 5 games
– at the last Worlds in Prague and Ostrava in 2004, Canada won the Gold Medal and left with the IHLC after the title changed hands six times
– this marks the tenth time for Prague and third time Ostrava hosting the Championship, with Canada and Czechoslovakia winning three golds each, along with one Gold apiece for the United States, Soviet Union and Sweden
– 2014’s tournament MVP (Pekka Rinne), Top Goalie (Sergei Bobrovski), Top Defenseman (Seth Jones) and Top Forward (Viktor Tikhonov) are all participating again at this year’s Championship
Only time will tell who will raise the Championship in Prague on 17 May and leave with the IHLC!