Team North America has been World Cup of Hockey's exhilarating surprise

Team North America has been World Cup of Hockey's exhilarating surprise

TORONTO — First it was Auston Matthews’ spell-binding move leading to a goal. Then it was Johnny Gaudreau’s speed earning him a penalty shot. Then it was Vincent Trocheck’s up-close shot producing another goal.

Just 95 seconds into Wednesday’s game, Team North America was up 2-0 on Team Sweden, which knew full well it was facing a speedy team but had absolutely no answer for it.

“I felt pretty old there, the first 10 minutes, to be honest with you,” Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “There’s a lot of speed on that team.”

There is a lot of speed. And excitement. And if we’re all lucky, there will be more Team North America hockey past Wednesday.

Team Sweden got past that sluggish start to force overtime, earning a semifinal-round berth before falling to North America, 4-3, in that extra time. And despite playing three great and entertaining games, it’s North America that’s on the verge of elimination. The team needs Finland to beat Russia on Thursday afternoon to advance; Russia is the only squad to best North America, winning 4-3 in what was another exciting tilt.

Let’s just say this is as far as this team gets — and that’s likely the case — it’s still been damn fantastic to watch. Nobody expected this team to challenge the veterans, at least not to this degree. And maybe that lack of notoriety, and the expectations that come with it, is what Team North America needed.

“When you're coming into it with no pressure, you kind of just have fun and let the game flow out there,” said Brandon Saad, the former Blackhawks man/child who at 23 is Team North America’s elder statesman. “We have a lot of talent that can take over the game. The biggest thing is just having fun and letting our skill take over. We're in a pretty good start here.”

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Its finishing ability isn’t too shabby, either. Nathan MacKinnon’s dragging backhand winner against Henrik Lundqvist was a dazzling exclamation point on a 3-on-3 that had onlookers and Twitter abuzz.

“Just hearing the crowd when we won and seeing the fans when we won, it was really cool to be a part of this, a part of this team,” Mark Scheifele said. “Obviously you want to be a part of history, you want to be a part of that whole thing.”

We all knew Team North America was a talented bunch coming into the tournament. Just look at the roster: Gaudreau, MacKinnon, Matthews, Shayne Gostisbehere, Connor McDavid, etc. You expected to see speed and skill but not to this level. It’s been exhilarating hockey, and not many would object if it continued.

“I think we definitely have turned some heads,” McDavid said. “People didn't know what to expect when we came into this tournament, but we've beat two good hockey teams and ultimately maybe even should have beat the Russians. I think we've definitely turned some heads and opened the eyes of everyone what the future of the NHL is like. We're definitely excited about that.”

There are plenty who rue the fact that this team’s creation meant some of America’s hopefuls weren’t on Team USA, which was eliminated in a 4-2 loss to Team Canada on Tuesday night. I still say, right now, even with the kids Team USA wasn’t going to beat Team Canada. But the young Americans are a reminder that, while a window is closing on the current generation, the next group could mean a very bright future for U.S. hockey.

Team North America will be cheering for Team Finland to beat Russia on Thursday afternoon. Those who have been dazzled while watching the kids might be doing the same. There’s no pressure for North America, and it’s playing accordingly. If it’s eliminated on Thursday, it’s nevertheless been one hell of an entertaining and energetic show.

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

It was a rare sight to see the Blackhawks in a shootout on Wednesday night.

It was just the second time this season — and first time at the United Center — that the Blackhawks made it past 3-on-3 overtime. 

The last came on Dec. 2, 2017, a 3-2 shootout loss to the Stars in Dallas. On Wednesday night, the Blackhawks were on the other end, beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a seven-round shootout. Nick Schmaltz netted the game-winner.

"We'll take it," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought we had a decent game tonight. Overtime not so good, I liked the shootout victory, Fors made some big saves for us particularly as the game got deeper. Our third was OK, I thought our first two were way better, and overtime we gave up some high quality, some bells were rings for a bit there. But it was nice to see the shootout win."

Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist, recording another multi-point game, his 16th of the season.

"I mean we need every point we can get at this point," Kane said. "There's still belief in this locker room. Obviously we need to go on quite a run and have a big record here down the stretch. But take it a game at a time and nice to get two points."

Anton Forsberg was a big reason the Blackhawks even recorded those two points. The 25-year-old netminder stopped 34 of 36 shots and made a handful of big saves down the stretch.

"It was really nice to get a win for sure," Forsberg said. "I would love to have a lot more wins, but right now just gotta look forward and get as many wins as possible."

Added Quenneville: "I think it was good for him to win a game the way he did. Lot of shots were on the line, as we progressed, got deeper, hitting the point first was big for him and for us and then finding a way to get the extra one was a good win."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?