You’d think after beating Team Sweden in the semifinal of the World Cup of Hockey, in overtime no less, would have the boys from Team Europe strutting a little more proudly, perhaps making the odd boastful proclamation or two.
Not happening. Team Europe has defied the odds getting to this point and it knows that better than anyone. This is a team that trailed 9-1 after four periods of its first two pre-tournament games, a rag-tag team that was basically placed in the tournament as fodder from the traditional hockey countries. Eight days and eight wins later, on the heels of a stunning 3-2 overtime victory over Sweden in the semifinal, it finds itself sharing the stage with the world’s most dominant hockey country.
Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said before the tournament that he had a pretty good idea of what the top four teams were. When asked if Team Europe was one of those teams, Babcock was rather coy. But it’s pretty clear he didn’t expect to be facing this team in the final. “I think on three out of four, I was right, so not right on one,” Babcock said. And which team would that be? “That’s one of those things,” he said.
And there is certainly not a lot of delusion going on here. And there likely won’t be any in the day off leading up to the first game of the best-of-final Tuesday night. “We want to give Canada and the world a really good final,” said Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger. “We still have hockey to play here and we want to be competitive. We want to make it difficult for Canada to win the World Cup and we’d like to get in the way of that.”
Notice he didn’t say anything about actually winning the World Cup? Some might take that as Krueger being a defeatist, others might think he’s being realistic. But one thing is certain. Being the plucky underdog nobody expected to win has worked marvelously for Team Europe to this point in the tournament, so there’s really no need to change things now.
And, let’s face it. Team Europe is playing with house money here. It has already accomplished more than it set out to do simply by showing that a collective of small hockey countries could even compete with the best. There is absolutely zero pressure on this group at the moment. There is nothing to be lost by continuously foisting more pressure on Canada. It may not make a difference, but, hey, that’s why they play the games. That’s why they played this game.
“It’s probably the best team ever,” Team Europe winger Mats Zuccarello said of Team Canada. “We have to play a perfect game and we have to be lucky. The puck is going to have to bounce our way. When you play hockey, anything can happen, so we just have to stay positive and give it our best…but to have (Sidney) Crosby and all those great players – (Ryan) Getzlaf, (Shea) Weber, (Drew) Doughty – it’s an all-star team out there, but we’re going to play hard and see at the end.”
When asked what would have to happen in the next two or three games in order for Team Europe to compete with Canada, Team Europe captain Anze Kopitar succinctly said, “Everything? There’s no secret to it. I mean, they pretty much bull rushed through everybody right to the final and we’re going to have to play our very best. There can’t be an area where we can’t be good. So we’re going to have to play a solid game.”
And even that might not be enough. As Zuccarello pointed out, this might just be the best team ever assembled. Period. At any level of hockey for any event. But perhaps everyone is selling Team Europe short. After all, it was one of only four teams in the tournament – Canada, USA and Sweden were the others – that had established, full-time NHL players at every position. It has five players who have won Stanley Cups, it has more international experience than any other team in the tournament and a group of players motivated by the opportunity to finally have a chance to win an international tournament. Most times, these players are using all their energy just trying to qualify for major events or avoid relegation.
And, like its opponent in the final, it has gotten better with each passing game in the tournament. “You put all those countries together and there are a lot of good players,” Babcock said. “I like their back end and I like their goaltending. I think they’ve done a real good job through the middle of the rink. They’ve got a real good looking team.”
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