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Canada, the U.S. among pre-tournament favourites in world junior championship

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Canada, the U.S. among pre-tournament favourites in world junior championship
Canadian Press
Dec 20, 2006, 4:34 PM EST

(CP) - Canada is poised for a three-peat and the Americans will try to contend instead of pretend at the world junior hockey championship.

The men's world under-20 tournament returns to Europe after a two-year absence but retains a strong North American flavour as the defending champions and the U.S. are taking gold-medal calibre lineups to Leksand and Mora, Sweden. Canada opens defence of its back-to-back titles against the host Swedes on Tuesday (12:30 ET) at the Ejendals Arena in Leksand.

But a pivotal game in how the tournament will unfold is the next day when Canada meets the Americans in Mora.

The countries are both clear favourites in Pool A but only one can finish first and earn the bye to the semifinal. While Canada is looking for its third straight title, the Americans will be hoping to improve on their performance. In Vancouver last year, the talented U.S. squad underachieved and finished fourth.

Canada and the U.S. will be joined in Pool A by Sweden, Slovakia and promoted Germany.

Finnish goaltender Tuuka Rask, the award-winning goalie at the 2006 world juniors in Vancouver, gives his country the edge in Pool B.

The Czechs have the depth and talent to get into the medal round. The Russians are a dark-horse team without a big gun in their lineup. Switzerland and promoted Belarus round out Pool B.

The teams with the best records in each pool get byes to the semifinals while the second and third teams cross over to meet in quarter-finals.

A notable change to the tournament format is there will no longer be ties in round-robin games. That means overtime and shootouts will be used in pool play.

Three points are awarded for a win in regulation time, two points for an overtime or shootout win and one point for an overtime or shootout loss.

Canada has 11 returning players from the squad that won gold in Vancouver. That team allowed only six goals in six games and one of them even strength.

Defencemen Marc Staal, Luc Bourdon and Kristopher Letang are among the best in the world in their age group.

But Canada hasn't won this tournament in Europe in a decade.

Head coach Craig Hartsburg wants to guard against the disconnect his players might experience in Sweden without the hoopla that surrounded the team in Vancouver.

"The travel, the atmosphere over there is totally different from Vancouver," Hartsburg said. "The ice surface is bigger.

"There's not too many similarities other than the fact that you are playing for the same championship."

The U.S., winner of the last two world under-18 championships, is loaded with talent and NHL draft picks as it was in Vancouver. In looking for the missing chemistry, coach Ron Rolston made an eyebrow-raising decision not to bring back forwards Bobby Ryan or Mark Mitera for a second year.

The Americans' top four defencemen match up well with Canada's and are led by Erik Johnson, the No. 1 pick in this year's NHL entry draft by St. Louis. Jack Johnson, who is not related to Erik, went No. 3 to Carolina last year.

Host Sweden hasn't won this tournament in a quarter-century and has missed the podium the last 10 years, which is baffling considering the success of the national men's team at Olympics and world championships during that time.

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