Free Press special writer Nicole Haase breaks down the eight teams competing at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championships, which runs Friday through April 7 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth:

Group A

Canada

The Canadians have switched up their roster since the last world championship but still have 16 members of that silver medal-winning squad and 13 who won gold at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. They continue to skew older, with just three college players. Star player Caroline Ouellette moved to the coaching staff this season, but the team still boasts a ton of talented players. The goalie from the last two Olympics, Shannon Szabados, has rejoined the team after time playing in men’s leagues in the U.S. She’s joined by two other stellar goalies.

Players to watch: Marie-Philip Poulin was the engineer of USA’s heartbreak at the last two Olympics. She has great hands, vision and always seems to be in the right spot at the right time. Erin Ambrose and Renata Fast are two new additions to the roster on defense and should provide an interesting blue line in front of Szabados. Forward Rebecca Johnston was particularly good during the December series against the U.S.

Contender status: Serious. Until another team proves otherwise, it’s always a two-team showdown between the U.S. and Canada. While Canada has owned the Olympics, USA has owned the world championships. Canada last won gold in 2012. Aside from all the talent, Canada has the advantage of having been on the ice and practicing for the past week, something the Americans weren’t able to do because their boycott ended just three days before the tournament. That camp alone has to make Canada the favorites for gold.

USA

USA has won the last three world championships and seven of the last nine. Similar to Canada, the U.S. returns 17 players from last year’s WWC roster and 13 players from their Sochi silver medal-winning team. Robb Stauber is the new head coach, as of the fall, after having served in assistant roles at five previous tournaments. It’s a late coaching change less than a year before the Pyeongchang Olympics. He helmed the team in the December series, and it wasn’t a great showing for Team USA. The players’ boycott has put a lot of attention on this tournament and, in turn, a lot of pressure on the players. Without much time to jell before the first puck drops, the odds aren’t in their favor.

Players to watch: Team captain Meghan Duggan took her leadership role to a new level during the player boycott. She’s also vocal on the ice, constantly encouraging teammates, directing traffic and generally being the point person for the squad. Up front, Kendall Coyne is small but speedy and provides great contrast to the size and shot of Hilary Knight. Amanda Kessel’s return to the ice should bring some creativity. On the blue line, Lee Stecklein is big and unflappable. She has been a stalwart at Minnesota for what feels like a decade and played in Sochi as a sophomore. Maddie Rooney was spectacular for Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA postseason and could make a name for herself this week.

Contender status: Serious. Before their fight with USA Hockey, the Americans probably were the favorites. Now they’ve had off-ice distractions and will have little time on the ice together. And they don’t get any chance to ease in — they’ll face Canada right away Friday night. Canada likely will win their opening matchup, but the Americans will have more time to get it together before the medal round.

Russia

The Russians have been upstarts in recent years, winning bronze in two of the last three world championships. Oddly, after achieving success at the 2016 WWC, Russia comes into the tournament with a new coach and shuffled roster. The team is much younger and heavy on players from new coach Alexei Chistyakov’s Tornado Moscow Region squad.

Players to watch: Three names on the Russian roster may be familiar to fans of the CWHL and NWHL. Lyudmila Belyakova and Yekateriina Smolentseva played in the inaugural NWHL season before returning to play in Russia this year. Iya Gavrilova was a CWHL rookie-of-the-year nominee with the Calgary Inferno this season. She won a championship with the University of Calgary before scoring 21 points in 20 games in her first year in the CWHL. Smolentseva is a four-time Olympian and was the captain in Sochi. The breakout player to watch will be Anna Shokhina. She’s just 19 but is captain of Tornado Moscow Region and averaged more than two points a game in the WHL.

Contender status: Decent. The Russians probably are the favorites for the bronze, though Finland is close. Russia will need to find a way to score — goals in this tournament are going to be difficult to come by for most teams.

Finland

After going undefeated in the Nations Cup, Finland is playing as well as it has in years. Having goalie Noora Räty back on the ice not only makes the Finns a better team but gives the players the confidence they need to push forward and be more offensive-minded. They have veterans and promising younger players and seem to have found a good balance. No one other than the U.S. and Canada has won gold or silver at the WWC, but Finland has 11 bronze medals, the last coming in 2015.

Players to watch: Räty is where it starts and ends for Finland. After some behind-the-scenes disagreements, she is back on the team, and the difference she makes is tangible. Mira Jaluso is a stalwart defender and has a good shot from the blue line. A breakout star for Finland could be Emma Nuutinen up front. She was coming into her own as the NCAA season ended. Riikka Välilä is 43 and started playing for Finland in 1988. She took a 10-year break from hockey but returned in 2013.

Contender status: Decent. The Finns have played in every bronze-medal game since the tournament’s inception. They’re an established program and have Räty.

Group B

Sweden

The Swedes have two bronze medals at the WWC, the last coming in 2007. Coach Leif Boork, a 67-year-old veteran of the Swedish men’s league, is feuding with Jenni Asserholt and Emma Eliasson, two of the best goal scorers in the Swedish women’s league, and will not put them on the national team. Their exclusion leaves Sweden trying to fill holes with little depth.

Players to watch: Maria Lindh and Michelle Löwenhielm play at Minnesota-Duluth and helped that program host an NCAA tournament game this season. Sweden tends to be more defensive, but when they look to score, it’ll be Anna Borgqvist and Fanny Rask providing the offense.

Contender status: Low. Leaving the best players at home and having a coach not particularly forward-thinking certainly doesn’t bode well. The prospects for a medal aren’t great, but neither would a third-place finish be surprising. There’s not a ton separating any of these squads, so one hot streak from a forward or goalie could really be all it takes.

Czech Republic

The Czechs currently sit where Russia was a few years ago. They’re a program on the rise, but they’re probably a few years off from really starting to make waves. But they definitely have enough raw talent to give teams a hard time and could find themselves upsetting the status quo. They’ve never finished higher than sixth – which they accomplished last year. They’re in the limbo position of hoping to advance while also playing to make sure they aren’t relegated. There were several Czech players in the NCAA this season, meaning not only is the talent getting a chance to develop, but the schools are seeing the potential in young players from the Czech Republic.

Players to watch: Four of their talented NCAA players are Michaela Pejzlová, Tereza Vanišová, Katerina Mrázová and Denisa Křížová. Vanišová was Hockey East Rookie of the Year, with 28 points in 28 games, despite playing on the last place team. At Northeastern, Křížová stepped into the top forward role left by USA’s Coyne and did so admirably, tallying 45 points in 34 games. Pejzlová won a national championship as a freshman at Clarkson and carved out a spot for herself on an already deep and talented roster. Mrázová actually played for the Boston Blades of the CWHL in 2012-13 and became the first European to win the Clarkson Cup.

Contender status: Low. The Czechs are the dark horse favorite for the bronze medal. They’re a young team with a lot of talent. The learning curve will likely be steep and they’ll need a strong performance from their goalies, but they have the potential to really make a splash this week.

Switzerland

Bronze medal winners in Sochi in 2014, Switzerland brings a similar roster to Plymouth. The team did not lose in its recent qualifying run for Pyeongchang. It has one bronze in the World Championships, in 2012. It has the most balanced squad of any of the teams not from the U.S. and Canada. Not only does it score – 18 goals in four qualifying games – but it has the defense and goaltending to back it up. Goaltender Florence Schelling was a major part of the success in Sochi. She’s returning from an injury.

Players to watch: Forward Lara Stalder is one of the best forwards playing in this tournament. A top-three finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award (the MVP of NCAA women’s hockey), she scored 56 points in 35 games at Minnesota-Duluth this season. In the final round of Olympic qualifiers for Switzerland, she had eight of the 14 goals. Schelling is a veteran presence and a natural leader.

Contender status: Not good. They shouldn’t have a problem in Group B, but will likely find themselves struggling to match the depth of USA and Canada. A team cannot win on the back of one forward and a stellar goalie, so they need to see some others step up if they want to win another bronze.

Germany

Germany is coming off a disappointing round of play where they lost to Japan and failed to qualify for Pyeongchang in 2018. It’s a blow to a squad that was riding high on their promotion to the top tier. The Germans earned their place in the top division tournament after placing first at the Division I Group A championships in 2016. The Olympic qualifying loss seems to have rattled the program a bit, as they made some changes and shuffled the roster. Still, they come to Plymouth as the team most likely to be relegated and with the most to prove. They’ve gone heavy on defenders on their roster, leaving them with just 10 forwards.

Players to watch: Tanja Eisenschmid is a big offensive threat from the blue line. She played four years at North Dakota and gives them a steady presence in back – especially when combined with goalie Jennifer Harss. She’s a key part of their power play and provides such presence for them in the back. The Germans have three players currently in the NCAA. Lena Dusterhoft and Anna Fiegert are at Minnesota State-Mankato and Marie Delabre is at Merrimack.

Contender status: Not good. It’s unlikely that Germany contends for a medal. They’re here to try to stop any backslide after not qualifying for Pyeongchang and to try to not get relegated. The teams in this year’s tournament seem to well represent the continued growth of the game, with each squad moving along the path at a different rate. If the Czechs are where Russia was a few years ago than it could be said Germany is where the Czechs were. They’ve done a good job of starting to develop youth talent and they’re creating a pipeline of players.

Friday’s game schedule

Noon: Czech Republic vs. Switzerland

3:30 p.m.: Sweden vs. Germany

4 p.m.: Finland vs. Russia

7:30 p.m.: United States vs. Canada (NHL Network)