MOSCOW, December 24 (R-Sport) – Russia and Canada go into the 2013 world junior hockey championships starting Thursday in the Russian city of Ufa as the main favorites for gold.
The old rivals have captured eight out of the last 11 titles between them, and all the signs are there that normal service will be resumed after last year's shock win by Sweden.
The Swedes are depleted by injuries to several key players, while full-strength Russia is led by NHL No. 1 draft pick Nail Yakupov and Canada by center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, two of the world's top emerging talents.
“Of course, I’m ready for the leading role morally, physically and by all other criteria,” Yakupov said.
“I feel great and I’m ready to play my heart out."
Adding a tantalizing edge to the rivalry, Yakupov and Nugent-Hopkins will both suit up for the Edmonton Oilers once the NHL lockout is resolved.
“As I grew up, I always dreamt of playing at the junior world championships," said Nugent-Hopkins. "Now I have a unique opportunity to play here.”
Yakupov, 19, is still to prove himself worthy of the biggest league in the world, while Nugent-Hopkins already has a season under his belt, notching up 52 points in 62 games.
Their teams are in Group B along with Germany, Slovakia and the United States, which failed to make it past the group stage last year.
Russia and Canada clash on New Year's Eve in a game that could go a long way to deciding which goes directly into the semifinals as group winner, and which finishes second or third and must negotiate the quarterfinals.
Yakupov is ready for anything come December 31.
"I understand that I will have to keep a cool head and ignore provocations. Especially against the Canadians. These guys play dirty. We got used to that, we played a few games in the North America, so our team is ready."
The Swedes will be favorites to win Group A but must contend with a stiff challenge from Finland and the Czech Republic. Switzerland and Latvia complete the group.
The final is scheduled for the January 5 at the 8,000-capacity Ufa Arena belonging to KHL team Salavat Yulaev.