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World junior championship: Germany hopes to end its up-and-down pattern

GROUP B: GERMANY

2012 finish: Won Division I Group A event to earn promotion
2012 round-robin record: 5-0-0-0, 34 GF/9 GA

Yahoo! Canada Sports has asked North American-based players, some of whom are playing in the world junior championship, to break down their national teams.

Germany's Nick Latta (OHL Images)Germany would like to take off its coat and stay a while. It will be tough with the draw it has at the world junior championship.

More than a dozen players off the squad that waltz through the IIHF's second-rung tournament last season are too old for the WJC, so the club going to Ufa will be relatively young. Edmonton Oilers fourth-rounder Tobias Rieder, whose status is murky due to a deep bone bruise/hairline fracture sustained in an OHL game last month, is the only drafted player. Basically, it boils down to whether Germany can keep from getting its doors blown off in the first four days when it faces Canada, the U.S. and Russia and refocuses on its round-robin finale vs. Slovakia. Ensuring the country plays in successive WJCs for the first time since 1997-98 would mean the world.

"It's really important to Germany — they've always went up and down, up and down," says Sarnia Sting centre Nick Latta, one of seven players on the preliminary roster who skates in either the CHL or USHL. "They [the IIHF] have changed the format so only one team goes down. That would be the first priority, to stay up.

"It's tough with our first three games but the other group would be the same with the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland," Latta adds. "When we go to to this tournament, we have to win."

The high-water mark of Germany at the U20 level was in 2007 in Leksand, Sweden. It beat the U.S. and Slovakia to start 2-0, but lost its next four games and end up being demoted. It has also lost 11-of-12 games in its '09 and '11 appearances. They're eager for the challenge.

"Pretty much we know that the game against Slovakia at the end is our most important game," says Rieder, who will be the team's unquestioned offensive leader if healthy by the Dec. 25 roster deadline. "We just want to play our best hockey and who knows, maybe we can upset someone. You never know in hockey, right?"

Muskegon Lumberjacks wing Frederik Tiffels noted "no one wants to play in the second division." The the games vs. the three elite hockey nations are an important measuring stick.

"It's not bad to play against the three best countries in the world," says Tiffels, who leads his USHL club in assists while being a rookie. "You know where you are. Playing against the future NHL players should make you proud.

"If we lose, it's important to just forget about it because we know those are pretty good teams, Just stay focused. Our important game comes at the end."

Germany will likely rely greatly on its Canadian-seasoned talent. Rieder had 42 goals and 84 points last season in Kitchener, but injuries and his team's collective offensive morass have held down his stats. Latta, Oshawa Generals wing Sebastian Uvira and Sudbury Wolves 17-year-old Dominik Kahun will have to try to chip in.

"Nick Latta, me, the guys from the OHL who know what it's like to play against Canadian teams and go against players in your age group, we're kind of the go-to guys," Rieder says.

"We got a huge leader role," is how Latta describes the OHL's contingent's obligations. "Me and Tobias, we've been to the tournament twice now and we know it's a hard tournament."

Germany does boast some size on the back end, particularly in the form of Oliver Mebus. The D corps' mobility is going to be tested by the top teams.

"I think we should have some good defencemen, guys who play in the first division," Rieder says.

Barrie Colts goalie Mathias Niederberger, now 20, backed Germany to gold in its flight last season. The Shawinigan Cataractes' 18-year-old Marvin Cüpper is having a good first season in North America; he also plays against six members of Team Canada and one member of the U.S. and Russian squads apiece.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Forward Tobias Rieder (Kitchener Rangers, OHL). The former 42-goal scorer, like a lot of Rangers forwards, has not got untracked offensively (nine goals, 23 points in 27 games). "We started off the season with eight road games in a row and we've had injuries," he says. "I'm pretty confident it's going to get better in the second half of the season."

It's beyond obvious that losing Rieder would be a big loss.

Forward Sebastian Uvira (Oshawa Generals, OHL). The bellicose Bavarian likes to make the most of being blessed with a 6-foot-2, 206-pound frame, to understate it for hopefully comic effect. Uvira and Generals teammate Boone Jenner, Canada's returning centre, will go head-to-head in the tournament opener. The right wing also speaks Russian and Czech. Does that mean he can chirp all of Germany's round-robin opponents in their official languages?

Forward Leon Draisaitl (Prince Albert Raiders, WHL). The 17-year-old Cologne native has 28 points for P.A., leading all Eastern Conference newcomers in the Dub. One would not expect the world of someone who is only two months past his 17th birthday, but Draisaitl is an impressive prospect for the 2014 draft.

Forward Leo Pföderl (Nurnberg, DEL). Right wing had six points in five games during the Division 1A event last December and actually has statistics while playing in the top flight, so he'll be counted upon. Christian Kretschmann and Andreas Pauli are also 19-year-old forwards who skate in the DEL.

Defenceman Tim Bender (Mannheim, Germany Jr.). Pro scouts — and perhaps someone bird-dogging for a CHL club — will closely watch the pint-sized puck-mover. The 5-foot-10, 166-pound Bender will be, to put it mildly, in tough to win puck battles, but could help the German power play.

Defenceman Oliver Mebus (EHC Krefeld, Germany 3rd div.). The 6-foot-9, 240-pound D-man will be tough to miss; he's seen some time in his nation's top-flight pro league this season.

"He's huge," Latta says. "He and Max Meirandres are both big guys. We have some size. That's going to be important when we go up against Canada and the U.S."

Goaltender Marvin Cüpper (Shawinigan Cataractes, QMJHL). Cüpper is having a good first North American season with a rebuilding a team, maintaining an .895 save percentage while facing 34 shots on goal per game. (Please keep in mind the QMJHL tends to undercount shots, so 34 per game might convert to 40-plus in another league.)

"He stole some games for us a few years ago in the under-18 when he played for us as an underage," Latta says.

MUST WIN GAME: Slovakia (Dec. 30, 7 a.m.)

Let's not be lily-gilders. Group results carry over to the relegation round — would that Denmark could have got a rematch vs. Team USA again last January in Calgary but there was just no room in the schedule, dammit — so the winner starts 1-0 come Jan. 2. That is a leg up in the bout not to be the team which will miss out on Malmö, Sweden, next winter. Norway has earned promotion for 2014.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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