MANNHEIM – The World Championship is only two days old and already Group D is a royal mess. Germany upset the United States in the first game of the tournament, and last night the Danes shocked the favoured Finns. What gives?
Of course, the first explanation is that, as mentioned, the tournament is in its very early stages. It doesn’t matter who wins at the start; it matters who wins at the end. But there may be more to the story than just the scoreline and standings. The truth is that all of the top teams, with the exception of Russia, do not have many big-name players they would normally have in the lineup, either at the Olympics or at the Worlds in a non-Olympic year. As a result, they might be more vulnerable.
No better example is there than the United States. While the country’s best 20 skaters are as good as any nation’s on any given day, there is a notable drop-off of talent thereafter. This exposes the potential dangers of their “greenhouse” program where the focus is on a small group of players which trains to become world class.
Finland also is missing several top players like Saku Koivu and Olli Jokinen. In fact, the team has but four NHLers in the lineup (the same number as the Czech Republic, actually). Of course, the team has plenty of talent outside the NHL, but to lose rather convincingly to Denmark is not the way a team wants to start the World Championship.
Having the star players on a team isn’t just about scoring goals and making big plays. It’s also about experience, leadership, and playing relaxed hockey under intense pressure. Canada may have a young team, for instance, and it may not be a gold-medal favourite, but it has three cornerstornes to build a winner with: captain Ryan Smyth, veteran Ray Whitney, and Olympic gold medalist Corey Perry.
Of course, a team without stars can still do well if it has great goaltending, and that’s where Sweden might have an advantage. Goalie Jonas Gustavsson had a great tournament last year, and great play from him at the right time could mean the difference between a middling finish and a medal.
The teams that are never the favourites are also usually the teams that get the most dedication from their players. It seems Kim Staal has played for Denmark ever since the game came to that country. It also seems impossible that Latvia ever played without goalie Edgars Masalskis in the lineup. It’s equally shocking that Mark Streit said no to La Suisse this year. He had played every year since 1998 with one exception (2008).
So although the top teams may be lacking in star power, they don’t feel the effects as much as the teams out of the “Big Seven.” Canada and Sweden can survive without, say, Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Lidstrom, but could Belarus have a chance without Andrei Mezin or Ruslan Salei?
But back to Group D. The results of the first two games means that one of the favoured teams might be shockingly placed in the Relegation Round in short order if it doesn’t win the next game. It also means that the Finland-United States game on May 12 might be life and death for one of those teams.
Swiss goalie Martin Gerber doesn’t see the World Championship order being upset too much, though. “It’s a long tournament and it’s always the first game that’s the toughest to play, especially if you don’t score right away,” he observed. “I think the top teams will still be very competitive.”
His teammate, Roman Josi, agreed. “The best teams still have world class players. They can have their second or third team and still be a great team.”