Skepticism surrounded the World Cup of Hockey since it was first announced by the NHL. Some thought it was a gimmick, others a cash grab. The main question in people's minds was whether the players would buy in and care about a newly created tournament that lacked the history and weight of the Olympics.
On the eve of the World Cup, those fears can be safely put to rest.
"I didn't know what to expect coming into it," Capitals and Team USA defenseman John Carlson said. "I figured it'd be pretty good, but I think it's been off the charts. The other games that I've watched I think have been really, really fast and the skill is there all over the place."
After three contentious exhibition games for each team that were more physical and contested than many expected, excitement for the World Cup has reached it's peak as it has become clear that the players are taking this tournament seriously.
Nine players from the Washington Capitals are participating. Alex Ovechkin, Dmitry Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov will play for Team Russia; Nicklas Backstrom for Team Sweden; Braden Holtby for Team Canada and Philipp Grubauer will play for Team Europe. But the three players Caps fans will likely follow more closely than the others are Carlson, Matt Niskanen and T.J. Oshie as they will be playing for Team USA.
International success has proved elusive for USA hockey in recent years. America has not won gold in the Olympics since the famous 1980 Miracle on Ice and have medaled only twice since then, a silver in 2002 and 2010. In the World Championships, USA has only medaled four times in the last 20 years, all four bronze.
The competition in this tournament will be just as fierce. Team Canada boasts an incredible roster, one so deep that Holtby, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, is currently relegated to the press box.
"There's nowhere to hide really," Carlson said. "There's three regular season games, if you want to call them that, so if you have a little slip, it could be really, really costly. So you got to be on top of your game all the time, making sure that you're doing the right things at all times or else you'll be packing pretty quickly."
Despite the competition, the team remains confident. USA boasts one of the deeper rosters of the tournament. They also set the tone early with a win over Canada in their first exhibition game.
Plus, with the current format of a short tournament, the players know that anything can happen.
"In a short tournament like this, I think anybody can probably win it," Niskanen said. "We'll go as hard as we can and try to give ourselves the best chance."
USA begins its quest for the World Cup on Saturday against Team Europe. The game begins at 3:30 p.m.
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