Even if Wednesday's win over Sweden was its swan song, the under-23s made an enormous impact on the World Cup.
Not trying to dictate the agenda here, but if you love hockey in its purest, most unfiltered and most entertaining form, sit in front of your television Thursday afternoon and cheer your lungs out for Finland to beat Russia in the World Cup of Hockey. Because that’s the only way Team North America will advance to the semifinal. And rest assured, it will be your only chance to see this kind of hockey, perhaps until the next Olympics or even four years from now when a bunch of wildly talented kids we’ve never heard of yet make up Team North America again.
Make no mistake. Team North America is a gimmick. So is Team Europe. They were born out of the fact that the organizers of this tournament believe there are only six countries in the world that can play hockey at a world-class level. But as it turns out, they’re great gimmicks. They’re eye-popping, surprising and refreshing gimmicks. Team North America has been the talk of the tournament, winning two games, including an instant classic with a 4-3 overtime win over Sweden Wednesday afternoon. It has defeated two established hockey countries and came within a goal of having a chance to beat another, but it will be all for naught if Russia beats Finland and takes the second spot in the semifinal. And that would be a shame.
Perhaps the only thing these kids haven’t mastered yet is math. Might have something to do with the fact that they’ve spent much of their youth honing their talents to ridiculously sublime levels, which does not leave a lot of time for advanced functions. Nathan MacKinnon, who scored the overtime winner on a series of moves that were truly breathtaking, said he thought North America had punched its ticket to the semifinal with a win in extra time. “I told AMatt (teammate Auston Matthews) cellied (celebrated) so hard,” MacKinnon said.
(Johnny Gaudreau said much the same thing, which begs the question: Why did the players not know that they needed a win in regulation to secure a berth in the semifinal? Were they ever told that? Did the coaches know? If so, why didn’t the players? Let the conspiracy theories begin, particularly in light of the fact that Team North America let its foot off the gas in the second half of the game.)
Even if Team North America doesn’t advance to beyond the preliminaries, it has made its stamp on this tournament. It is a special group to be sure, one that was aided by a leader who didn’t smother it by over-coaching and micromanaging. Todd McLellan let the reins off a little with this group because it is such a short tournament. To think that these young men will go back to the NHL and exhibit the same kind of dizzying speed and talent every night is expecting too much. The NHL, which is full of minds that love to kill offense, would not allow it to happen. And this kind of chaos is not sustainable in the long run.
“What we’re doing here is what we’re trying to promote with our club teams,” McLellan said. “It’s just the talent level is a little different. Eighty-two games come into play, it’s dramatically different. Flights from Boston back to Edmonton then to L.A. two days later makes a huge difference. Scheduling, injuries, the concepts and the way we play, we just have a different type of team.”
It’s easy to get caught up in hyperbole here. Some were saying after the game that it ranked as one of the greatest games of all-time. It was a great game. The first period was about as exciting a level of hockey as anyone has seen in years. But the best game of all-time? It’s not even the best Canada/World Cup game of all-time. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it was an epic game, one in which the North Americans stunned the Swedes with two quick goals and four breakaways. Swedish defenseman Erik Karlsson said the message after the first period was clear. “Wake the f--- up,” Karlsson said. When asked how they adjusted to the speed, he said, “We had no choice. If we didn’t, it was going to be a disaster.”
It’s easy to look at this group that has been described as generational players and not think that we may never see this level of hockey again. To be sure, it harkened us back to the wonderful days of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers. But as McLellan pointed out, that would sell short some of the talent that is making its way through hockey systems right now. Go to a local arena on any given night and you’ll see some kids doing some very special things.
“The Canadian and American contingents that are playing in this tournament right now, they were this team eight years ago,” McLellan said. “As we move forward and Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel become older men…there’s somebody playing peewee and bantam out there right now who are going to play in this eight years from now. We just don’t know who they are.”
So if Russia beats Finland, well, it was fun getting to know you, Team North America. It’s been a real hoot, actually. Mark Scheifele, one of the elder statesmen of the team, was talking about how special the experience was. “Yeah, you play against these guys in World Juniors and World Championships,” he said. “Then you meet them and you think, ‘Man, this guy’s a pretty good dude.' "