When it comes to exciting displays of hockey, there aren't many better events than the World Junior Championship.
While the annual tournament doesn't have the same display of best-in-the-world hockey talent as the Stanley Cup Final or the Olympics, the WJCs certainly produce the same thrilling hockey pace that makes those other two so compelling.
The desire to win is the same, so when you factor in the faster, looser style of play that is common in junior hockey, the results can often be legendary, as has been seen in recent years.
This gold-winning goal from John Carlson in the 2010 WJCs will probably go down in history as one of the most memorable moments in United States international hockey history:
Similarly, ask most Canadian hockey fans, and they'll fondly remember this Jordan Eberle goal from 2009:
Many of the best hockey players in the world today represented their home countries in past tournaments, and many of the players that will be taking part this year will be NHL superstars in the future.
This year's tournament takes place in Malmo, Sweden, and like every year, begins on Boxing Day (that's December 26th for those that don't celebrate Boxing Day.) Let's now take a look at the countries involved and the players to keep an eye out for.
The defending champions thanks to an impressive 3-1 win over Sweden in last year's gold medal game, the USA team enters this year looking for their first pair of back-to-back golds in WJC history. After dominant performances by Jack Campbell and John Gibson in recent years, the US will once again feature stellar netminding with the duo of Jon Gillies and Anthony Stolarz, the best 1-2 punch in the tournament heading in. The goalies may be relied upon heavily, as the absence of eligible defenseman Seth Jones (playing for the Nashville Predators) leaves the blueline with a shortage of size and elite skill. Returning forwards Riley Barber and Ryan Hartman lead the way offensively, but also keep an eye on explosive 2015 draft-eligible prospect Jack Eichel. The US will have less star power than they had last year, but they still have plenty of depth and balance, and will once again be one of the tournament's top teams.
This year's host nation, the Swedes have been become a consistent threat at the world juniors, medalling in five of the last six tournaments, including last year's silver. Fast and smooth from the blueline to the forward ranks, they will be lethal in terms of their ability to control the puck, especially on the wider surface size of international ice. With highly-regarded prospects Elias Lindholm, Filip Forsberg, Alexander Wennberg, Jacob de la Rose and Sebastian Collberg all returning from last year's squad, Sweden will have a major advantage on other teams in terms of tournament experience. After dismantling Canada 3-0 in pre-tournament exhibition play, Sweden looks like the odds-on favorite heading in.
After rattling off an outstanding five consecutive gold medals from 2005-2009, Canada has been free-falling at the WJCs ever since, winning silver in 2010 and 2011, bronze in 2010, and then finishing out of a medal spot in 4th last year. Still, year-in and year-out, no other nation produces the sheer number of talented players like Canada does, and this year is no exception. Jonathan Drouin, Anthony Mantha, Nicolas Petan, Bo Horvat, Derrick Pouliot, Josh Morrissey and Zach Fucale are some of the best junior players in the world, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Although an obvious contender, the real question for Canada will be how well their preferred physical style of play translates to a bigger ice surface. If they can't play with speed then they might run into a lot of problems.
Can't have a list of tournament favorites without mentioning Russia. Despite some bad meltdowns in key games in the last few years, they've still won medals in five of the last six tournaments. The Russians are always a dangerous team offensively, with plenty of weapons that they can use to beat you. Mikhail Grigorenko looks to be the linchpin to their offensive attack, but it remains to be seen how the mess of his situation in Buffalo has affected his play. Russian teams traditionally don't defend well, but this year they could be saved by two key players: Nikita Zadorov is the best blueline prospect that they've had in ages and already has NHL experience, while 2012 Tampa Bay Lightning 1st rounder Andrei Vasilevski was nearly unbeatable the last two tournaments, and could single-handedly carry the team all the way to gold this year.
As touched on by our very own Huw Wales the other day, the Czechs will most likely live or die depending on the play of 2012 Dallas Stars 1st round pick Radek Faksa. Faksa will be making his third appearance in the tournament, but he'll be the lone elder statesmen, as the Czechs are bringing plenty of youth in hopes of building a stronger team for the next two years. Projected 1st 2014 round picks David Pastrnak and Jakub Vrana could make things interesting, but the team will need to be nearly perfect to reach the medal rounds.
Although not as deep of a roster as their neighbors over in Sweden, the Finns have a lot of interesting pieces. Rasmus Ristolainen and Ville Pokka are two high draft picks on the blueline, while Teuvo Teravainen and Artturi Lehkonen are two high picks at forward. The real X Factor with Finland, however, is in net. Nobody has produced better goalies over the last 15 years than Finland has (Tuukka Rask, Kari Lehtonen, Pekka Rinne, etc.). Can little-known netminders Jusse Saros and Janne Juvonen continue the trend and steal games for their team?
Although not traditionally known for their ability to produce hockey talent, the Swiss have begun to consistently make splashes at the WJC, challenging and even upsetting stronger teams. Lacking elite talent, they have to play a balanced team game out of necessity in order to compete. Mirco Mueller, drafted 18th overall by San Jose in 2013, is the only blue-chipper on the roster. Could this year see the Swiss finally break through and win their first WJC medal since 1998?
The Long Shots:
Despite there are some big names of Slovakian decent playing in the NHL, the country has not fared well at the world juniors in a very long time. Marko Dano (who scored 9 points in 6 games last year), Peter Cehlarik and Martin Reway are all good prospects, but likely won't be able to carry the team very far.
Leon Draisaitl's stats for the Germans last year perfectly sum up his team's performance: 6 points in 6 games, with a -9 rating. Draisaitl is a fantastic prospect, and will undoubtedly go Top 10 in the 2014 draft, but has almost zero support behind him. He'll need to churn out an MVP-level performance for Germany to find any success.
Norway returns to the tournament after Latvia was relegated following a last-place finish last year. A single victory by the Norwegians against any team would be seen as a huge accomplishment.