For a few moments, one minute and 12 seconds to be precise, it almost felt as though Team Canada was toying with the Team Russia. For all the Canadian faithful, it felt as though their country might *gasp* lose. But this is Team Canada we’re talking about. After falling behind 2-1, they promptly tied the game and eventually put it out of reach in the third period. Despite the nerve-wracking scoreline, the result was never in doubt, even though Russian goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was in top form through the first two frames. Canada held the edge in shots, in chances, and in possession, and proved to be too much.
Russia Pushed Canada to the Limits
I don’t believe there was any panic or concern on Team Canada’s bench after Russia tied the game and then took the lead. This is a group that believes in each other and in their ability, and it was only a matter of time until they broke through. But Russia played hard. They gained a ton of confidence when they scored their first goal (on their first shot of the period) and kept the momentum going to give themselves the lead. If you look at the shot counter, it doesn’t seem as though Russia was really in the game but, at the end of the day, the most goals get you the win, not the most shots.
Russia had chances, and they buried those chances. When Canada went up 1-0, they didn’t necessarily back off, but they weren’t able to solve Bobrovsky for some insurance. Was he in their heads a little? It seemed that way at the midway mark of the second, but once they were down, it was as if, to a man, they said, okay boys enough is enough let’s shut this thing down. I don’t know if you could call this game a test, or claim that Canada finally experienced some adversity, but I think we learned one thing: Canada, for all their depth and talent, can’t take their foot off the gas for any team.
Alex Ovechkin on Team Canada: “They have skill, talent, confidence and experience.”
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) September 25, 2016
One of the issues they had against the Russians was that many of their shots in the early-going weren’t dangerous. They were testing Bobrovsky in terms of numbers, but they weren’t high-quality chances. He wasn’t working particularly hard, and they appeared to change their approach when things got testy. We’ve seen a similar pattern throughout this tournament. Canada is always the better team, but they haven’t played a perfect game.
I don’t think that Canada took Russia for granted. Team Russia has a ton of firepower up front, and their biggest weakness is their defence. They played well and blocked a lot of shots, but they weren’t able to generate any offence from the backend. In one game, winner-take-all, Russia had enough talent to win. Canada just wouldn’t let them. And with the victory, its off to the Final, where the Canadians’ opponent is the most unlikely, and perhaps, the most dangerous?
Surprising Team Europe Shouldn’t be a Surprise
When we first heard about this European mash-up, we shook our heads. How could they be competitive? What a gimmicky concept. The NHL just needed another team to even up the groups. All legitimate concerns, especially when they looked so disjointed in pre-tournament action. But I’ve been saying the same thing about Team Europe from the get-go. This isn’t a group of minor league players. Yes, most of them have never played together, and they don’t have any real allegiance to their logo. But the team is made up of All-Stars. Europe has no shortage of talent, and they’ve proved it since the start of the round robin.
I wondered if they would have enough motivation to play for a made-up crest. I wondered if they would be able to come together in what is largely a meaningless tournament for a team that may not even be a team next time around. But I think all of that fueled them. These are guys who want to play for their countries, but weren’t allowed to, and they have some pride at stake. No one was giving them a shot at all. They had the lowest odds to make the Final, and now here they are.
Europe is extremely well coached, and they truly are playing for each other. Chemistry is a real thing in hockey, and this group has it. They had it more than Team USA and Team Finland. They have it in a similar way to Team North America, but they also have a ton of experience to go along with it. When you really think about it, how could we have underestimated them? If it was a one-game Final against Canada, I don’t know that I’d give Europe any advantage. But the format is a best of three. Could they actually win this thing?
Canada Cannot Take Europe Lightly
These two teams met in the round-robin, and Canada won the game 4-1. It wasn’t really close, but it wasn’t a blowout either. Just as with Russia, Team Europe has a goalie who can steal games. Jaroslav Halak has been one of the big reasons why Europe has gone this far. When he gets hot, he can steal an entire series. (See: 2010 NHL playoffs). Coach Ralph Krueger has his team playing a very well refined game. They don’t play with fear. They don’t play like underdogs. They believe they can compete with any country in this tournament, and they have.
Sweden was the favorite to win the semifinal game, but favorites don’t mean anything. I think there was plenty of extra motivation to beat Sweden, a team filled with talent, and maybe a team that looked past Europe a little bit. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t have been the first. Players and coaches may not admit to taking a team lightly, but I know the thoughts are there.
“Talk to any player from Europe and they’re quick to credit pride as the reason for the team’s success. The idea that building a roster of completely different players seemed ridiculous. No doubt Europe entered this tournament as the laughingstock. It leaned on its motivation, experience and pride to find a cohesiveness and surprised the entire hockey world.” [ESPN]
Motivation goes a long way in sports, and if Canada isn’t careful, they may end up on the wrong side of it. In order to fight Europe’s will to win, Canada can’t just rest on depth and talent. They have to muster up their own motivation to continually prove they are the best hockey nation in the world. “They are a great story,” said Canada GM Doug Armstrong, “Shame on us if we don’t take them seriously for what they’ve done to this point”.
Who Will Win the World Cup?
Team Europe is for real. They believe it in their dressing room, and they’ve proved it to the rest of the hockey world. But Canada is a different animal. They don’t even have all their best players at this tournament and they’re still the top team on paper. Canada’s strength is their ability to roll four lines that can hurt you. Any one of them would be a number one line on an NHL team, and that has posed a problem for opponents. Can Europe handle it?
Team Canada ranks first among World Cup teams with a combined 14 Stanley Cup victories. Team Europe ranks second with eight.
— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) September 26, 2016
Europe can win if: Jaroslav Halak steals at least one game. If the series ends up tied at one a piece, that winner-take-all affair will be a doozy. Halak has to be at his best to give Europe a chance. And they have to stick to what has made them successful. If they get a lead at any point, they’ll clog up the neutral zone and give Canada fits trying to generate chances. Team Europe is already confident, and if they win a game, that confidence will sky-rocket. There’s already a ton of belief in that room. Winning one of the two first games will propel that belief even further.
Canada can win if: They keep playing their game. I know it sounds cliche, but Canada’s skill is overwhelming if they execute it properly, stay out of the penalty box, and don’t let up when the game is close or tied. Against Russia, when Canada went up 3-2, they kept pushing. When they went up 4-2, they kept pushing. Once the game was out of reach at 5-2, they locked it down. That’s how Canada needs to play. Carey Price (facing his old teammate in Halak), needs to be better than he was against the Russians. He wasn’t bad, don’t get me wrong, but Price has to take charge of this thing now.
Sidney Crosby has been dominant in this tournament. So has Brad Marchand, John Tavares and Jonathan Toews. With guys firing on all cylinders like that, Canada will be tough to beat. The pressure is on Team Canada. They are the defending champs at everything international (at the senior level), they’re on home ice, and they’re the better team. But don’t count out Europe. I think everyone has done that enough up until this point.