Last month Canadian coach Justin Wadsworth witnessed a turning point for the men's cross-country ski team.
During the gruelling eight-event Tour de Ski competition, Wadsworth watched with excitement as Sudbury, Ont.'s Devon Kershaw became only the third Canadian to win a World Cup race, joining Pierre Harvey (1987 and '88) and teammate Ivan Babikov (2009).
Kershaw added three more podium finishes and concluded the prestigious 10-day event seventh overall. Although he didn't earn a medal, teammate Alex Harvey, of St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que., solidified his place among the top-level skiers, finishing 10th overall.
The results only reaffirmed Wadsworth's belief at the beginning of the season that the men's team was ready for a breakout season.
Now, with the world championships set for Oslo, Norway, from Feb. 23-March 6, the expectations have significantly been raised.
"For the men's team, if we don't win a medal it would be a bit disappointing, for sure," Wadsworth told CBCSports.ca. "Our goal is at least win one medal. I think we have the opportunity, if everything is going really well, to see two or three medals even. That's not out of the question."
Individually, Kershaw's best shot rests in the sprint and 15-kilometre classic, an event that limits skiers to the classic style of skiing. As for Harvey, he'll look continue his success in the 30-km pursuit. A race that consists of a classical 15-km cross-country style race followed by a 15-km freestyle version, Harvey recently won the Under-23 world championship in Oetepaa, Estonia.
"Of course, Devon won a World Cup this year in a skate sprint, so he's got to be at least the favourite for the final," said Wadsworth, who also expects both men to contend in the team sprint. "[But] the 15-km classic for Devon is probably his best opportunity for a podium. He's one of the best classic skiers in the world, and on a good day, is one of the best guys at that event.
"Alex has proven already that he's super strong in the final sprint [of the 30-km pursuit] so he just needs to keep in contact [with the leaders] and that could be really good for him."
While the Canadians remain hopeful, Dario Cologna of Switzerland and Noways' Petter Northug Jr., are expected to battle for cross-country supremacy.
An Olympic gold medallist in Vancouver, Cologna won his second Tour de Ski event in January, and has a healthy lead in the World Cup standings over his Norwegian rival.
But Northug shouldn't be taken lightly, warns Wadsworth. The 25-year-old won a pair of gold medals in Vancouver, is a multiple time world champion, and will have plenty of motivation on his side to perform in front of his home nation.
"Both those guys can podium probably a minimum of two or three races, which is phenomenal considering how many races we have in such a short period," said Wadsworth.
"Right now, Dario hasn't shown any kinks in his armour. He won the Tour de Ski fairly easily and I think he's probably the guy to beat. But with Northug on his home soil, and having some more training under his belt, he can also win multiple medals.
Norwegian a step above
The old saying "statistics don't tell the whole story" certainly applies to the top women contenders. Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk may have a commanding advantage in the World Cup standings, but that's only because Marit Bjoergen of Norway, who sits third, skipped the Tour de Ski to prepare for the world championships.
are quite good also.
2006 Olympic champion Chandra Crawford, of Canmore Alta., and Daria Gaiazova, from Banff, Alta, will headline Canada's entry.
The pair won a bronze medal in the sprint relay two months ago. Crawford has battle through injuries since winning gold in Turin, Italy four years ago but is regaining her health.
"You could say they're a dark horse for the sprints," Wadsworth said of Crawford and Gaiazova.