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.