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look at the countries competing in the Dec. 26-Jan. 5 world junior hockey championship in Leksand and Mora, Sweden (in order of finish in 2006):

Canada

Canada has won the last two world junior championships but it's been a decade since the country won it outside North America. With 11 returning players from a dominating defensive performance in Vancouver, Canada is a gold-medal favourite again. The defencemen are the key as they will again be called upon to limit shots on their goalie on a wider international ice surface, as well as generate scoring chances from the back end.

Players to watch: D Kristopher Letang, Marc Staal, Luc Bourdon; F Steve Downie, Andrew Cogliano.

Russia

The Russians don't have a big gun in their lineup as they've had the last two years (Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin). Goaltending has been their downfall in back-to-back losses to Canada in the gold-medal game. On paper, Russia is a dark horse, but they can never be underestimated.

Players to watch: G Semen Varlamov, D Yuri Alexandrov, F Artem Anisimov.

Finland

Finland is the most consistent country at this tournament behind Canada with five bronze medals in the last six tournaments. The Finns' ace in the hole is Tuuka Rask, a first-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rask was named the best goaltender in Vancouver and is one of seven returning players. With a goaltender like that, the Finns should get to the semifinals.

Players to watch: Rask, F Jesse Joensuu, D Teemu Laakso.

United States

The favoured Americans underachieved in Vancouver due to lack of team chemistry. The U.S. has so much talent and so many NHL draft picks that if they ever get it together, watch out. Their defence looks as good as Canada's, led by Erik Johnson, the first overall pick in this year's NHL draft by St. Louis.

Players to watch: D Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Brian Lee; F Jack Skille, Patrick Kane.

Sweden

The Swedes haven't reached the podium since a silver-medal finish in 1996 and haven't won it since 1981. They open against Canada and a win would give the hosts incredible momentum for the rest of the tournament. New Jersey Devils prospect Niklas Bergfors, Nicklas Backstrom, the No. 4 pick in the draft by Washington, and St. Louis first-round pick Patrik Berglund give the Swedes firepower up front.

Players to watch: Bergfors, Backstrom, Berglund; G Jhonas Enroth.

Czech Republic

Sweden has been good to the Czechs as they've won a medal every time the Swedes have hosted this tournament, including the first of back-to-back titles in 2000. The Czechs have a solid nucleus of five players who were high NHL draft picks and that should get them to the quarter-finals. The country draws heavily from their players in the Canadian Hockey League.

Players to watch: D Jakub Kindl; F Martin Hanzal, Petr Kalus, Michael Frolik.

Switzerland

The Swiss give other countries fits. They're longshots for the podium but they can be the spoiler that ruins another country's medal hopes. Their special teams were great in Vancouver, but five-on-five, not so great. Switzerland's lone medal in this tournament was a bronze in 1998.

Players to watch: G Reto Berra, F Juraj Simek.

Slovakia

Like the Czechs, the Slovaks will have a lot of CHL players in their lineup. Red Deer Rebels defenceman Vladimir Mihalik, a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, is the showpiece of a Slovak team that doesn't look very deep up front.

Players to watch: Mihalik, F Mario Bliznak.

Belarus

It used to be just the team that finished last was relegated to the second-tier world junior championship, which gave Belarus a fighting chance of staying in the A world championship from one year to the next. But since 2003, it's the bottom two that get sent down to play their way back and Belarus has been on a relegation yo-yo.

Players to watch: F Ihar Varashylau, Sergei Kastsitsyn.

Germany

See Belarus above. But with nine returning players and three NHL draft picks, the Germans could make the relegation round interesting and light a fire under the Swiss and the Slovaks.

Players to watch - F Constantin Braun, Felix Schutz; D Korbinian Holzer.
 

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For the Czech team dont forget about Mike Repik this guy is amazing, he is off to an awseome start with the Giants and being that he has played in the WHL for 2 years know he is used to the rough style that U.S and Canada bring to the table.
 
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