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 and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade


Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."

Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks


Anthony Duclair regrets not making most of opportunity with Blackhawks

Anthony Duclair knew what kind of opportunity he had in front of him when he was traded to the Blackhawks in January. The first day he stepped into the locker room, he admitted he was a little "star-struck."

But the marriage didn't last very long. 

After recording only two goals and eight assists in 23 games, the Blackhawks chose to move on from the restricted free agent by not extending a qualifying offer. Duclair later latched on with the Columbus Blue Jackets on a one-year, $650,000 "prove-it" deal.

"I wasn't surprised," Duclair said before Saturday's game against his former team. "I knew that I didn't perform as well as I did when I was there. I think I was there for only 20 games and didn't live up to the standards. As soon as I didn't hear anything from my agent I sort of got the message. But it was time to move on."

Duclair made no excuses for what went wrong in Chicago and accepted responsibility for not taking advantage of his opportunity, even though a leg injury sidelined him for the final month that prevented him from giving the Blackhawks a larger sample size.

"I just didn't perform well," he said. "It's going to be one of my regrets, to get that opportunity in Chicago and not perform in the way I did. It was something I had to look in the mirror this summer and move on obviously, but at the same time whenever a team comes next I think I'm going to take that opportunity and run away with it."

It's obvious that Duclair's got the potential to be an effective offensive player in the NHL. But we've only seen that in flashes, which is a large reason why it didn't work out in Chicago and why, entering his fifth season in the league, he still finds himself trying to play for a long-term contract.

"Just being more consistent," Duclair said. "Thats comes up a lot and my agents talks to a couple GMs around the league and it's something I'm trying to work on. It's not something you can work on in the summer, it's more preparing mentally and physically and that's what I've been trying to do."

So far, so good in Columbus.

Duclair has two goals and two assists through six games and is averaging 15:22 of ice time playing in a top-six role, on track to shatter his previous career high in that category (14:23) when he did so as a sophomore in 2015-16 with Arizona. He even made headlines on Thursday after scoring a highlight-reel goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, saying his "phone blew up quite a bit."

How he scored it is what stood out and his perspective after it is encouraging for his overall growth, as well.

"I've already put it behind me to be honest with you," Duclair said. "I'm just focused on Chicago now. I want to be consistent throughout every shift. Look at that goal, [it was] second and third efforts. That's what I want to bring to the table every shift, especially with the guys I'm playing right now. I just want to be having the puck whenever you can and being big on the forecheck."