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THN at the World Championship: Important games begin now

Canadian Ian White of the Toronto Maple Leafs vies with Hungarian Csaba Kovacs during their preliminary round of the IIHF World Hockey Championship. (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

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Canadian Ian White of the Toronto Maple Leafs vies with Hungarian Csaba Kovacs during their preliminary round of the IIHF World Hockey Championship. (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

BERN – The way the IIHF World Championship schedule is this year, the first really big games take place on Tuesday. For the big nations such as Canada, Russia and the U.S. the third game will be their first true test, after two games against the weaker nations in the World Championship.

Canada trumped Hungary 9-0 and Belarus 9-1. Russia warmed up with Germany (5-0) and France (7-2). And the U.S. was victorious over Latvia (4-2) and Austria (6-1).

There has been one real upset when Latvia topped Sweden, whose record against Latvia before the game was 10-0-1. Not anymore. Now it has a loss after Latvia beat Sweden 3-2, after a penalty shootout. 

Another score that raised some eyebrows was Slovakia’s loss to Belarus, also in a penalty shootout. Somehow, even if the lesser hockey nations have been able to push the big ones somewhat, the giants have found a way to win..

Still, Tuesday is the first day we see games between the big nations. Canada will take on Slovakia and Russia plays the host Switzerland squad. On Wednesday, the Finns meet the Czechs and Sweden is set to take on the young American team.

Just as exciting – and even more important – are the other games scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.

The winner of the France-Germany tilt will advance to the qualification round among the top 12 and the loser will have to play in the relegation round for its spot in the top division of the World Championship. And the not-so-often hyped games of Austria-Latvia, Hungary-Belarus and the Battle of Scandinavia, Denmark-Norway share the same fate.

HUNGARY FOR POINTS
It had been 71 years since the last game between Canada and Hungary. That game ended in a 1-1 tie, but since then, the countries’ hockey programs have gone in different directions, to put it mildly.

Hungary earned promotion to the top division last year, after a 70-year absence and has quickly become a media and fan favorite in Kloten, a Zurich suburb, thanks to the team’s courageous play.

In its first game, Hungary pushed Slovakia to the edge of the cliff, but lost the game as Lubos Bartecko scored with 13 seconds remaining in the game. Hungary’s goalie, Levente Szuper earned the well-deserved nickname “Szuperman” after making 52 saves.

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YOUNG AMERICANS
The U.S. team is nothing if not full of promise. Six first round draft picks in their defense corps and only two players born before 1980 makes for a great base for the team’s future.

“These are future Olympians, maybe not this Olympiad, but surely for the next,” said coach Ron Wilson.

But of course the Americans want to get a medal in Switzerland. It’s been five years since the last bronze and in the past 10 years, the U.S. has made it past the quarterfinal just twice. Getting two games against weaker nations was exactly what the young team needed to get themselves together and used to the demands of the wider European rink.

“It’s an adjustment for me as well, I haven’t coached internationally on a big ice surface since 1998, so I have to catch up with what everybody is doing tactically,” Wilson said. “Nobody plays like this in the NHL so it’s an educational experience for me, too.”

In its second game against Austria, the U.S. had a 2-1 lead heading into the third period and Austria seemed to be hanging in there.

“I challenged the team to show that we have a killer instinct and to not let Austria think that they had a chance to win the game,” said Wilson. “I didn’t have to shorten our bench, which will help our confidence going forward.”

The average age of the U.S. team is 23.5.

That’s not including Ron Wilson, of course.

O MAN
It took just one game for a new international star to introduce himself. Sure, it was in a game against Austria, but collecting five assists in his first career World Championship game is a feat Sweden’s Linus Omark can be proud of. Omark followed it up with a first period goal in Sweden’s game against Latvia, making him the tournament’s leading scorer after two games.

Canadians Martin St-Louis and Jason Spezza have five points in two games.

Omark, the 22-year-old Edmonton Oilers fourth round draft pick (97th overall) in 2007, recently signed a two-year contract with Moscow Dynamo in the Kontinental League.

He’ll be joined by his childhood friend and Swedish Elitserien teammate Johan Harju, who’s also Omark’s linemate in the World Championship.

A EUROPEAN P.S.
During the 2005 Finnish SM-liiga final, when Jokerit took on Kärpät the goalies were Tim Thomas and Niklas Bäckström. Backstrom and his Karpat squad went on to become the champions with a 3-1 victory.

Both Thomas and Backstrom are now Vezina Trophy candidates.

Funny how things turn out sometimes.

THN's European correspondant Risto Pakarinen is at the World Championship in Switzerland and will be filing reports regularly throughout the tournament.

Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he's probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen. You can email him at risto@ristopakarinen.com.

Go to THN's World Championship Central HERE.

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