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Surprises, disappointments at hockey worlds

Senators' Heatley the obvious star during first phase of tournament

Thursday, 08.05.2008 / 4:18 PM / Features
The Canadian Press
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Surprises, disappointments at hockey worlds

With the preliminary round of the IIHF World Hockey Championship in the books, here's a look at some of the surprises and disappointments so far:

Halifax

It was just six years ago that Slovakia won its first world championship and solidified its permanent place among the top contenders at this event - or so we thought.

The biggest surprise to come out of the first round at the Metro Centre is that the Slovaks are now playing to avoid relegation after finishing last in Group C. They managed only a win over Norway, which ended up getting through to the qualifying round with a surprise victory over Germany and an overtime loss to Finland.

The Norwegians were 14th a year ago and will do no worse than 12th in Canada. In fact, they have a fair shot at reaching the quarter-finals for the first time ever. That's pretty impressive for a small hockey nation that played the first round without its most notable NHLer (Philadelphia Flyers forward Patrick Thoresen).

Otherwise, all of the teams expected to do well here advanced - Canada, Finland, Latvia, Germany and the U.S.

There was nothing surprising about Canada's start to the event, although it nearly lost to a young U.S. team that will be a serious challenger come the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

Individually, Ottawa Senators forward Dany Heatley has been the star of the entire event with six goals and 10 points in the opening three games. That should surprise no one, as Heatley has twice led a Canadian team in scoring at the world championship and both of those teams left with gold medals.

He has a legitimate shot at breaking Steve Yzerman's modern-day Canadian record of 20 points in one tournament. Yzerman set that mark in 1990.

Heatley's linemates, Rick Nash and Ryan Getzlaf, have also each had a strong start to the event here, as have Patrick Kane and Dustin Brown of the U.S., Finland's Mikko Koivu and Slovakia's Juraj Kolnik.

Among the players hoping to pick up their game is Canadian forward Jason Spezza of the Senators, who found himself playing on the fourth line after putting up just one assist in the first three games. Expect him to produce more moving forward, especially if Canada starts getting more power-play time.

There have been other slow starters as well. Teemu Selanne and Olli Jokinen have been playing on Finland's top line but have accounted for just three points each. Both of those players have openly said that they hope to improve and each will get the chance now that Saku Koivu has arrived and will likely join them up front.

Quebec City

The mighty Russians came as advertised: temperamental, offensively explosive and the clear favourites among local fans in Quebec City who have their fingers crossed for a Russia-Canada final.

But the Russians, who have disappeared at times during their games, are expected to step it up a notch, especially after adding Evgeni Nabokov between the pipes and Andrei Markov and Fedor Tyutin to patrol the blue line.

Nabokov's arrival is especially important with Russia down to just one healthy goaltender - Mikhail Biryukov - to end the preliminary round.

Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexei Morozov are leading the way on offence as Russia has outscored its opponents 16-6.

Undefeated Switzerland hasn't given an inch to its opponents and has capitalized on their scoring chances to end the preliminary round a perfect 3-0.

The Swiss are lead by NHL-calibre goaltending in Martin Gerber of the Senators and Jonas Hiller, who have surrendered a combined four goals in three games.

Canadian-born head coach Ralph Krueger has his players playing a strict, disciplined game and has watched his team outwork both Sweden and Belarus.

Offensively, the Swiss are fast and feisty, led by Minnesota Wild prospect Julien Sprunger, who has impressed with three goals and four points while displaying physical prowess and a willingness to go to the net.

The Czechs look just as good in Group D, their only loss coming to a powerhouse Russian squad in overtime in front of a sold-out crowd at Le Pepsi Colisee.

The Czechs have a solid defence corps, led by Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Up front, Patrik Elias and Radim Vbrata are leading the way with four goals each. Thin up the middle, the addition of playmaking centre Tomas Plekanec should help.

All six teams expected to advance here have done so including Denmark and Belarus.

France and Italy have won period battles but have been largely manhandled by opponents. The Italians finished 12th in Moscow but coach Michel Goulet says his team is trying to give some young players a chance this time around.

Among the disappointments are an undermanned Sweden missing its NHL stars. Even without the likes of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson and the Sedin twins, the Swedes have managed to score 15 goals against Belarus and France before losing to Switzerland 4-2 to finish second in Group A with a 2-1 record.

Despite finishing fourth last year in Moscow, expectations are low for Sweden. The Swedes got off to very slow starts in each of their games - France hung on through the first until Sweden opened the flood gates with nine goals. And Belarus, who beat goalie Mikael Tellqvist five times in their tournament opener, narrowly lost 6-5.

Sweden should get a boost with the addition of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the next round.

Belarus coach Curt Fraser is looking for good things from his NHL talent, including the Montreal Canadiens trio of Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, along with Mikhail Grabovski.

At times, the line of Alexander Ovechkin and fellow Washington Capitals teammates Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin has looked brilliant and have combined for five goals and nine points.

But Ovechkin is looking to improve his play. A fan favourite in Quebec City, Ovechkin has scored just two goals thus far.

And although Kovalchuk has five assists, he hasn't scored just yet. It's not for a lack of trying - he leads the Russians with 12 shots on net.

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