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Sweden aims to hold itself to a higher (Gold) standard

This question is for you trivia buffs out there.

What country has been the most snake-bitten throughout the history of the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship? If you're still stumped, here's a hint.

The nation's official team colors kind of resemble those of a certain Blue and Gold outfit in Western New York with a history of being frustrated in its quest to win the Stanley Cup.

Sweden has produced more than its share of world-class NHL talent over the years, and it
has secured 14 medals in World Junior competition. The problem is being a bridesmaid over and over again does become a bit tiresome for a nation that has produced the likes of Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Henrik Lundqvist. The Swedes have captured more than double the amount of medals the United States (six) has won in this event—but only have one gold medal (1981) to show for their efforts since the tournament began in 1977.

Sweden earned the bronze in last year's World Junior Championship after securing back-to-back runner-up finishes to Canada in 2008 and '09. The Swedes have won eight silver medals (second
most in the tournament to Russia's nine).

Sweden goes in with the belief that it can capture the gold even though it will be placed in the same preliminary group as 15-time champion Canada and 12-time champ Russia. The Swedes can be a little confident because they have a talented roster that will include at least a dozen NHL draft picks, the top-ranked draft eligible skater in the Ontario Hockey League and No. 1 rated draft-eligible defenseman playing in the Swedish Elite League.

Russia is expected to have five NHL draft picks and has the resume to back up its status as a gold-medal contender, too. The Russians have won the most medals (28) and rank second only to Canada in golden tournament moments. Here's a rundown of the European participants in the tournament.

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>SWEDEN

Coach: Roger Ronnberg.

2010 result: Bronze medal.

Tournament history: The Swedes' 14 medals are third most in tournament history but they've only captured gold once (1981). Eight silver medals rank only behind Russia.

Players to watch: Sweden has some returnees from last year's third-place team, including team captain Anton Lander -- a 2009 second-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers. The forward had five goals and eight points in last year's event in Saskatchewan. The Swedes also have two other NHL draftees in defenseman Tim Erixon (Calgary, '09 first round) and Carl Klingberg (Atlanta, '09 second round).

Erixon is the son of former New York Rangers forward Jan and is competing in his third straight WJC tournament. Erixon is a solid defender with some offensive skill.

Highly touted defenseman Adam Larsson is the No. 1-rated 2011 NHL entry draft prospect among Swedish skaters, according to NHL Central Scouting preliminary rankings. He had a goal, four points and a plus-three rating in six tournament games last year.

Gabriel Landeskog of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers is the No. 1 skater in OHL preliminary rankings for 2011 draft-eligible players. He's just the second European-born and trained player to serve as a captain of an OHL team.

Forward Calle Jarnkrok (Detroit, '10 second round) is described as a smart playmaker.

Outlook: Sweden believes it will contend for the gold and its chances of doing just that received a boost when the Ottawa Senators made 6-foot-3 goalie Robin Lehner available. He currently plays with Binghamton of the AHL but has appeared in two games with Ottawa -- stopping all 10 shots he's faced in the NHL.

The Swedes would have had an even better chance if 19-year-old juniors veteran Magnus Paajarvi were on the team. He's not because he's a lineup regular with the Edmonton Oilers. Still, they have plenty of talent to make a run at a golden memory.

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 SWITZERLAND    

Coach: Richard Jost    

2010 result: Fourth place    

Tournament history: Best finish, bronze (1998).    

Players to watch: Nino Niederreiter parlayed a spectacular 2010 Worlds effort into being the fifth overall pick of last June's NHL draft by the Islanders. Niederreiter had 10 points in seven games, scoring the game-tying and overtime-winning goals in quarterfinals in shocking triumph over Russia. Scored first NHL goal Oct. 13 to become fourth youngest player in expansion era (18 years, 35 days) to score in best travel league in the world. Sent back to junior Oct. 28.    

He's the big star on the team but not the only one as goalie Benjamin Conz is one of eight returnees from last year. He stopped 50 shots in the triumph over Russia. Lukas Meili is top-rated draft eligible goalie in Switzerland by NHL Central Scouting.    

Besides Niederreiter, Swiss expected to have five others who play major junior hockey in Canada, including his Portland teammate Sven Baertschi -- the No. 2-rated skater in the WHL, according to Central Scouting.    

Outlook: El Nino and Co. out to prove last year wasn't a fluke. In same grouping as defending tournament champion United States but team has good chance to reach medal round in group that includes a qualifier (Germany) and team that avoided relegation (Slovakia) to the lesser version of the World Championship event. Switzerland likely won't sneak up on anybody this year, but as it proved in 2010 anything can happen in medal-round play.  

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>FINLAND    

Coach: Lauri Marjamaki.    

2010 result: Fifth place.    

Tournament history: Finns have captured two golds and 12 medals total. Won five medals in six-year stretch that ended with a bronze in 2006, but they haven't medaled since.    

Players to watch: Eleven players drafted by NHL teams were selected for Finland's pre-tournament camp but an injury to forward Mikael Granlund is a blow. The ninth overall pick of last year's draft by Minnesota has been battling post-concussion symptoms since October and wasn't listed on the team's roster at the IIHF website.    

Goalie Joni Ortio, defensemen Tommi Kivisto (Carolina, '09 seventh round) and Sami Vatanen (Anaheim, '09 fourth round) and forwards Iiro Pakarinen, Toni Rajala (Edmonton, '09 fourth round) and Joonas Nattinen (Montreal, '09 third round) are returnees from last year's squad. Ortio, drafted by Calgary in the sixth round in 2009, went 3-3 in last year's tournament with an .844 save percentage.    

Forward Joel Armia (11 goals, 18 points in first 27 games with AssatPori in Finland) was rated as the top Finnish player by NHL Central Scouting.    

Outlook: Finns haven't won a gold medal since 1998 and it looks like the drought will continue. Ortio needs to step it up for this club to have a chance at medaling. Another tournament with a sub-par save percentage like last year isn't going to get it done.    

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>RUSSIA

Coach: Valeri Bragin

2010 result: Sixth place.

Tournament history: Russia has won the most medals (28) in the event and its 12 gold medals are second only to Canada.

Players to watch: Five NHL draft picks battled for spots on the final roster.

Forwards to watch include Vladimir Tarasenko (St. Louis), who was selected 16th overall in last June's draft. He was the second ranked European skater by Central Scouting last June and had 10 goals and 17 points in first 28 games in his second season in the KHL (yes, the same league that serves as home to former NHLers Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Yashin). Scored four goals and had five points in last year's championships.

The Washington Capitals are well-represented as they'll have three of their draft picks from the last two seasons skating for Russia -- forwards Yevgeni Kuznetsov (2010 first round) and Stanislav Galiev (2010 third round) and defenseman Dmitri Orlov (2009 second round).

Center Ivan Telegin (Atlanta, '10 fourth round) has 23 points in his first 26 games with Saginaw of OHL.

Outlook: Russians have seven returnees from last year's squad, the first since 2004 not to earn a medal in the event. That was the second time this decade Russia hasn't medaled.

Russia hasn't captured gold since going back to back in 2002-03, but it is all about redemption after last year's disappointment. Russians will get a quick jump on that project as their first two games are against Canada (Sunday) and Sweden (Tuesday). Yes, that's a daunting opening, but history shows that Mother Russia comes up huge after disappointing years. Previous five times Russia failed to medal it has the next year -- including two golds and two silvers. Can the Russians do it again?

While they are in the tougher of the two pools, there's a reason the Russians have won as many medals as they have over the years. They're good. History suggests they have a legitimate chance to return home with something nice and shiny.

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>SLOVAKIA

Coach: Stefan Mikes

2010 result: Eighth place.

Tournament history: Captured bronze in 1999 for its only medal since the split with Czechoslovakia in 1993.

Players to watch: Eight members of Slovaks' team are playing major junior hockey in Canada, including tall Prince George (WHL) defenseman Martin Marincin (Edmonton, '10 second round). The 6-foot-4, 187-pounder, who played in last year's tourney, has 10 goals and 35 points in 33 games in his first season with Prince George. Defenseman Adam Janosik (Tampa Bay, '10 third round) had 16 points in first 33 games with Gatineau of QMJHL. Winger Tomas Jurco is the sixth-ranked draft eligible player in the league, according to NHL Central Scouting. He has 17 goals, 32 points and 26 rating in 33 games with Saint John this year. Peter Ceresnak is the top-rated prospect in Slovakia and the 6-3, 205-pounder is touted as one of the team's most physical defensemen.

Outlook: Despite taking a step back last year after fourth-place finish in 2009, Mikes is optimistic about team's chances as it appears, on paper, to be one of the Slovaks' best in recent years. Still, goaltending is a question. Reaching medal round after surviving relegation would be a cause for celebration -- anything more a Christmas miracle.

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>CZECH REPUBLIC    

Coach: Miroslav Prerost.    

2010 result: Seventh place.    

Tournament history: Although it has medaled just once since 2001, the Czech Republic has just as many medals as Sweden (14), including two golds (2000-01) on its resume. Earned bronze in 2005.    
Players to watch: Forwards Roman Horak (Rangers, '09 fifth round) and Andrej Nestrasil (Detroit, '09 third round) are among four returnees from last year's squad that got off to a rough start with a 10-1 loss to Sweden in tournament opener. Both play major junior hockey in Canada (Horak with Chilliwack of WHL and Nestrasil with Prince Edward Island of QMJHL) and both rank among top scorers on their respective teams.    

Petr Straka (Columbus, '10 second round) has size (6-1), speed and great hands and led all rookies in QMJHL with 64 points in 62 games last year, with 13 of his 28 goals coming on the power play. He is not related to former NHLer Martin Straka.    

Jakub Culek (Ottawa, '10 third round) plays on same line as Straka with Rimouski Oceanic and while he is considered a work in progress offensively, the lanky 6-4 center still had 34 assists and 47 points in 63 games last season.    

The best-regarded prospect is David Musil, son of former NHLer Frantisek. Some scouts peg the younger as a Top 10 pick. However, the 6-3, 200-pound defenseman's status is in doubt because he suffered a hairline fracture in his right leg after blocking a shot in his Vancouver Giants' win over WHL foe Kamloops on Dec. 7.    

Outlook: The Czechs won four games last year in the tournament, three in relegation round, which enabled them to keep their spot in the top division of the event. They seem to have the talent necessary to make some hay. But will they? Having Musil would definitely aid in their attempt at earning redemption, but Czechs need a lot to go well in order to have a shot at a medal as they're in the same pool as anticipated tourney heavyweights Canada, Sweden and Russia.    

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>GERMANY    

Coach: Ernst Hofner. Former Sabre Uwe Krupp is an assistant coach.    

2010 result: Didn't qualify.    

Tournament history: Best finish seventh (1992-95).    

Players to watch: The Germans skate into the tourney with five players selected in last June's NHL draft, including forwards Tom Kuhnhackl (Pittsburgh, fourth round) and David Elsner (Nashville, seventh round) and goalie Philipp Grubauer (Washington, fourth round). Grubauer backstopped the Windsor Spitfires to their second straight Memorial Cup (Canadian Juniors equivalent to Stanley Cup) last season. Grubauer currently plays for Kingston in the Ontario Hockey League. Kuhnhackl's father, Erich, was voted as Germany's greatest hockey player of the 20th century. Younger Kuhnhackl is playing in Windsor as Germans will have eight players on their roster who currently play in major junior leagues in Canada.    

Nickolas Latta plays for Sarnia of the OHL and is the youngest player on the German roster. He won't be draft eligible until 2012. The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder is a fast skater who isn't afraid of contact.    

Outlook: Germany escaped relegation by posting 5-0 mark and outscoring its opponents, 27-3. The Germans likely won't leave Western New York with a medal, but they may have enough talent to avoid a return trip to relegation.    

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>NORWAY    

Coach: Geir Hoff.    

2010 result: Didn't qualify.    

Tournament history: Best finish sixth (1990).    

Players to watch: Norway is not considered a hockey hotbed but it still does have an NHL prospect in Sondre Olden. Olden was selected in the third round of last June's draft by Toronto -- 79th overall. The forward, who hopes to become the sixth Norwegian to make the NHL, was one of the youngest skaters selected in the draft as he dominated Under-18 competition at the international level with 22 points in five games.    

Others to keep an eye on include forwards Rasmus Juell, who currently plays for Cedar Rapids of the USHL and will play collegiately for Northeastern of Hockey East, and Andreas Stene of the Kelowna Rockets (yes, Tyler Myers' old team) of the Western Hockey League.    

Eighteen-year-old forward Nicholas Weberg has team highs in goals (21), assists (23) and points (44) in 27 games at Minnesota prep school Shattuck-St. Mary's.    

Outlook: This is just the sixth time the Norwegians have participated in the top division of the World Junior Championship competition. They escaped the relegation tournament and earned a promotion and trip to Western New York by finishing first in their Division I grouping during last year's World Championship qualifying event in Poland.    

In Norway's last tournament-proper appearance in 2006, it was outscored, 34-6, in six games -- including an 11-2 loss to Team USA. The Norwegians did nearly engage in a brawl with Canada toward the end of a spirited 4-0 loss to the Canadians in Vancouver.    

The Norwegians are 89-85-12 all-time but only three of those victories have come in the top division of the tournament.    

Norway has never medaled in this event. It'll be hard-pressed to change that trend in this tournament. The Norwegians went 5-0 last year to escape purgatory; avoiding a return trip to the qualifying tournament would be cause for celebration.

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