The under-24 team lived up to the hype, skating circles around Finland and playing keep away in an impressive 4-1 victory.
Detroit Red Wings senior vice-president Jim Devellano has been around hockey for more than 50 years. He’s seen a lot. And there he was in the press box at the Air Canada Centre between periods Sunday night as incredulous as anyone, not able to really comprehend what he was seeing.
“You give me Team North America and I’d win a Stanley Cup with them within two years,” Devellano said. “They’re better than 20 teams in the NHL right now.”
The biggest worry about the World Cup of Hockey darlings was that they wouldn’t live up to the hype, that they would skate circles around their competitors and little else, that they’d get leaned on by seasoned veterans and realize that they didn’t really belong in this company.
Forget it. Team North America dispelled every fear and confirmed every hope in its 4-1 win over Team Finland in the first game of the tournament for both teams. How bad was the dismantling? Well consider that Team North America did what so few teams have ever, ever been able to do. They made Finland give up.
So it goes with the World Cup. The two novelties have become the stories of the tournament so far, but the under-24s have served notice that they’re actually a threat to give Canada and the other big boys a run. It’s all well and good to suggest that Finland should have been far more physical against the youngsters, but you cannot hit what you can’t catch. And you can’t create scoring chances when the other team has the puck. After two periods, Team North America had blocked all of three shots, which would have put them in John Tortorella’s bad books. But it also indicated that there was no need to block shots because they always had the puck on their sticks.
There was not a soft spot in Team North America’s lineup. When you can combine that level of skill with that kind of speed, it makes for a deadly combination. Connor McDavid was terrific playing on a line with Mark Scheifele and Auston Matthews. The most dangerous player on the ice, though, was Johnny Gaudreau, the Calgary Flames restricted free agent who is showing that he’s worth every cent of the $8 million he’s reportedly seeking on a new deal.
The Finns, meanwhile, were awful from their goaltender out. They usually win games because they play as a five-man unit, take care of their own end first, strike when they have the chance and capitalize on the power play. They did none of that against North America.
And in some ways, they were just as inexperienced as the kids. At one point in the game, the skaters for Finland were Aleksander Barkov between Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine at forward with Rasmus Ristolainen and Esa Lindell on defense. That line went up against a Team North America unit of McDavid, Scheifele and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins up front with Morgan Rielly and Aaron Ekblad on defense. The total age of the Finns on the ice at the time was 20.5 years, while the North Americans averaged 21.9 years old.
When the tournament started, the North American team found itself in a group of death along with the Finns, Team Russia and Team Sweden. The possibility of them emerging from that group is not farfetched. Not one bit.