Down Goes Brown previews the World Cup of Hockey final between the heavily favored Canadians and Team Europe. Jaroslav Halak is the key to a potential upset.
Photo by Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
So, uh... just like the NHL drew it up, right?
As expected, the three-game final of the World Cup of Hockey will feature the two playoff teams from Group A. That was the group that was built around Team Canada and Team USA, and sure seemed to have been designed specifically to get those two rivals into a marquee final matchup that would pack the building, boost TV ratings and have sports fans all around North America buzzing.
Canada held up its end of the bargain, running the table in the round robin and then beating Russia on Saturday night. But Team USA's grit-induced meltdown became the story of the tournament, and it opened the door for Team Europe to sneak into the playoff round instead. They then went into Sunday's matchup with Sweden as a heavy underdog, only to come through with a shocking 3-2 overtime win.
That would be the same Team Europe that many fans didn't want to see in the event at all, given that the whole point of the tournament is supposed to be finding hockey's top nation, and "Europe" isn't one. The same was true of the 23-and-under Team North America, of course, but at least those kids were fun. This European mash-up couldn't even settle on an anthem to play.
But now Team Europe is in the final, two wins away from being crowned international hockey's greatest... whatever they are. And all that's standing in their way is Team Canada. Sure, it seems like a tall order, but when you weren't even supposed to exist in the first place, winning two hockey games shouldn't seem all that tough.
Game 1 goes Tuesday night. Game 2 is on Thursday. And Game 3, if necessary, will be played Saturday. Spoiler alert: It won't be, but we'll get to that. Let's take a look at our two finalists.
How they got here: The script was simple enough. Show up, inspire a few feel-good sentiments about rivals coming together for a common cause, and play with pride while losing to Canada and Team USA. Maybe beat the Czech Republic to stay out of last place. And then head home and let the real teams slug it out in the playoffs.
Apparently they forgot to translate the memo into European. In the very first game of the tournament, Team Europe stunned the Americans by a 3-0 final. At the time, the result was viewed as a sign that the US roster might be seriously flawed—correctly, as it would turn out. But all that USA-bashing distracted from the fact that Team Europe was better than we thought, and they followed that up with a 3-2 overtime win over the Czechs before closing with a 4-1 loss to Canada.
That 2-1-0 record was good enough for a playoff spot, and it set up yesterday's semifinal matchup with a Sweden club that was widely considered the tournament's second-best team. After a scoreless first, Nicklas Backstrom's goal early in the second gave Sweden a lead that it seemed satisfied to try to nurse for the rest of the game. Marian Gaborik tied it for Team Europe late in the period, and Tomas Tatar gave the underdogs the lead early in the third before Erik Karlsson tied it up late to send us to overtime.
That set the stage for Tatar to play the hero, tucking in a rebound to add yet another entry to the eventual Gallery of Sad Henrik Lundqvists exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
And just like that, Team Europe was through to the final. I guess we should have seen it coming. After all, in the entire 40-year history of the World and Canada Cup, Team Europe has never lost a playoff game.
What's been working: Head coach Ralph Krueger, who you may remember from a one-season stint with the Oilers a few years ago that ended with him being fired over Skype, has done a fantastic job with this group. Nobody faced a bigger team-building challenge, and Krueger managed to get everyone on the same page almost immediately. He's impressed just about everyone at the tournament, so much so that you're starting to hear his name resurface as a future NHL coaching candidate.
Beyond that, the roster features a strong blueline and two of the best two-way forwards in the world in Anze Kopitar and Marian Hossa, leaving them well-equipped to shut down an opponent's top line. And goaltending, once thought to be a potential weak spot, has seen strong work from Jaroslav Halak.
What hasn't: This isn't a team that's built to play wide-open hockey, as we learned during the exhibition round when they were blown out of the water by Team North America in back-to-back games. Kopitar described the team's style as "pretty boring, just plugging away, playing our game, playing our system." There's nothing especially wrong with that, but it's fair to say that this is a team that wants to play low-event hockey, not one that wants to go end-to-end trading chances with an offensive powerhouse. You can probably see where this is going. If the deck wasn't stacked enough, the team got word today that Gaborik will miss the entire final with a foot injury. On a team without a ton of star power up front, that hurts.
How they win: As always, goaltending will be a key. Halak will be facing a shooting gallery against Canada, and he'll probably need to outright steal a game or two for Team Europe to have any chance. And he might. It wouldn't be the first time he pulled it off—his playoff performance with Montreal in 2010 was the stuff of legends. (And if you're looking for a possible omen, Halak set the stage for that run by winning the Canadiens' starting job away from a kid named Carey Price.)
Beyond that, they'll need to keep playing what players have referred to as smart hockey. Nobody's trying to be the hero here. Instead, it's a collection of good players who've been given the right roles and are executing them. It may not be exciting, but it's been effective. When you're two games away from international glory, you'll take a boring win over an exciting loss any day.
And, hey, if anyone can draw up a way to shock Canada on the international stage, it's Krueger, who memorably pulled it off at the 2006 Olympics when he was coaching Switzerland.
How they lose: How much time have you got?
Look, there's no question over who's going to be the favorite here. Team Canada is essentially an all-star team, one that occasionally takes some time to get going but typically rolls right over its opponents once they do. They've had a handful of moments in the tournament when they've looked vulnerable, but it's never lasted for a full game, or even really a full period. And they've got so much depth that even if you can shut down one first line, another will just hop out for the next shift. At some point, you're going to get stuck with a bad matchup, and that's when things can go south quickly.
Team Europe will want to slow things down and win boring hockey games, but that's going to be easier said than done. At some point Canada will get going, and that's where Europe will need Halak to stand tall. If he's not at his very best, this series won't last long.
Why you should root for them: Who doesn't love an underdog story? Krueger's been riding that storyline hard, and rightly so, because this may be one of the best you could ask for. Not only was Team Europe itself dismissed as an also-ran heading into the tournament, but the roster is made up of players from nations like Slovakia, Germany and Denmark who are all used to getting sand kicked in their face in every major international tournament they appear at. Now, they've got their very first (and quite possible only) chance to actually win something. That's a tough story not to cheer for.
How they got here: They stomped the Czechs in the opener, broke some American hearts in the second game, and then finished a perfect round robin with a win over this same Team Europe. Both teams had already clinched a playoff spot before that game, but it wasn't exactly meaningless, with first place in the group on the line. Canada took the lead four minutes in, never gave it up, and ended up outshooting Europe 46-20.
That set up Saturday night's matchup with Team Russia. Some excellent work by Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky kept that one close, with Russia even taking a 2-1 lead late in the second. But Canada tied it quickly, then scored three straight in the third to run away with it.
Saturday's 5-3 final made it 14 straight wins for Canada in best-on-best competition, dating back to the opening round of the 2010 Olympics. These guys are pretty good.
What's been working: Pretty much all of it. Carey Price has looked great. Sidney Crosby is looking like the best player in the world again, and his line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron has been dominant. Jonathan Toews is chipping in offensively while making the opponents' best offensive threats disappear. The defenseman have been solid.
In short, just about everything is clicking. We could run through any number of stats to prove the point further, but let's keep it simple: Through the three-game round robin, Team Canada posted a goals differential of +11. No other team in the tournament was better than +3.
What hasn't: It almost feels like nitpicking, but there are a few players who've yet to really contribute. The big name is Steven Stamkos, who continues his slump at the international level. He's yet to score despite several good chances, and frustration may be setting in; he passed up a couple of good looks on Saturday.
Other than that, Jay Bouwmeester has had a few shifts that remind you that it was a mild surprise to see him named to the team in the first place. Ryan O'Reilly is pointless through four games, the only player on the roster that's true for. As a unit, the blueline has only chipped in one goal.
So the good news is they're not perfect. The bad news is they're beating everyone and there's still room for improvement.
How they win: By just pounding teams into submission. Not in the old-fashioned Canadian sense where you take the man, finish the check and occasionally hack the bone, although as the Americans found out, they can play it that way, too, if you want. No, the modern Team Canada just keeps sending all-stars over the boards until you wear down, and next thing you know one of the "depth" guys is doing stuff like this. As it turns out, 60 minutes is a very long time when there's a future Hall of Famer or two (or more) out there every shift.
Just look at these lines. In theory, the Joe Thornton group is the fourth line, but how many lines from the other seven teams in the tournament would you take over that one? I can probably come up with four. And none of them are on Team Europe.
What's more, coach Mike Babcock is almost ruthlessly committed to running all four lines. In the rare moments when things go bad, nobody panics and nobody double-shifts. It's just a new wave of elite players every 40 seconds until time runs out or the other side finally cracks. So far, it's always been the latter.
How they lose: Hey, it's still hockey. Upsets happen. Hot goalies happen. Bad bounces happen. This isn't a sure thing.
So let's try to picture the scenario where Team Europe pulls it off. It starts with Halak, obviously, who'll have to take Bobrovsky's first two periods from Saturday night, make them even better, and then stretch them over an entire game. Let's say Krueger finds a way to neutralize the Crosby line, whether that's with Kopitar or Zdeno Chara or something else. They find a line who can score, then manage to keep them away from Toews. Stamkos keeps squeezing the stick. Price doesn't quite look like himself.
All of that happens, there's a bounce here and a weird deflection there, and suddenly Team Europe has a one-goal lead. The clock is ticking, the fans in Toronto start grumbling, and before you know it the clock hits zero and the unthinkable has happened.
Of course, this is a best-of-three final, so all of that would have to happen twice. So sure, the odds aren't great. But again, it's hockey. Nothing's guaranteed.
Why you should root for them: Because you're either a Canadian or a shameless front-runner. Or both.
Final prediction: Team Europe continues to defy the odds and manages to keep it close... maybe once. But Team Canada just has too many weapons, and sweeps the series to win the World Cup.
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