The semifinals have ended and there’s no surprise that Team Canada finds itself two wins away from capturing their second World Cup of Hockey title.
Their opponent, though, seems to be the talk of the tournament.
Team Canada will face off with a surprise finalist, Team Europe, in a best-of-three final series, which begins on Tuesday evening. Both Team Canada and Team Europe come from Group A, which also featured Team Czech Republic and Team USA. Both the Czechs and the Americans went winless in the preliminaries, while Team Europe’s only loss was to the Canadians in each team’s final preliminary game.
In the semifinals, Team Canada faced off with Team Russia, the second-place team from Group B. The Russians were hopeful after they entered the third period in a 2-2 tie, but the Canadians came up big when it mattered most, outscoring the Russians 3-1 in the third period. If not for Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and his 42 saves, the Canadians could have put the game out of reach much earlier.
Team Europe’s path also went through Group B, as they narrowly defeated the group’s top-ranked squad, Team Sweden, 3-2, in sudden-death overtime Sunday afternoon. The win was thanks in large part to forward Tomas Tatar, who tallied the go-ahead goal just 12 seconds into the third period, then netted the game winner 3:43 into the 5-on-5 overtime.
— Stefan Kubus (@StefanKubus) September 25, 2016
Team Canada and Team Europe will rematch for the championship. Canada won their first meeting in convincing fashion, 4-1, while outshooting the Europeans, 46-20.
The Game Changer: Tomas Tatar. The 25-year-old Slovakian played an outstanding contest against Sweden to help his team get to where they are. Although the two goals he scored were his first in the tournament, he is coming up big just when he is needed (just ask any Detroit Red Wings fans what he is capable of). He’s rarely caught out of position and is always making a heads-up play to send his teammates on a rush or, more likely, to lead the rush.
The Canadians have some of the best defensemen in the world; Tatar will have to find new ways to create space for himself and his teammates. Standing at 5 feet 10 inches, he is able to slip past defenders undetected in key moments. This will have to be a common occurrence in the best-of-three battle with Team Canada.
Let’s not forget about Jaroslav Halak, either. The starter for the New York Islanders, Halak has been the most reliable player for Europe. After missing the 2016 NHL playoffs with an injury, Halak seems to be seeing the puck well and making initial saves, allowing his defense to clear rebounds. The Slovakian netminder has the second-best save percentage (.947) and second-best goals-against average (1.96) in the tournament (among goalies who have appeared in two or more games).
If the Europeans are to have any chance of defeating the heavy-favorite Canadians, he will have to continue to stand on his head for two more games.
What It Will Take to Win: The European group has allowed the most shots against in the tournament (150). This is almost by design, as head coach Ralph Krueger and his coaching staff have emphasized a style of play that funnels defensive players to the middle, allowing opposing forwards to skate along the boards. This will eventually lead to some scoring chances, but for a team that has never truly played together, it’s a perfect system to keep spectacular opportunities against to a minimum.
The system also hinders puck control. The Europeans have been scoring on odd-man breaks and on the rush, truly only displaying offensive creativity while the other team is caught off guard.
This has been a bold coaching strategy, but it has paid off well for the Europeans; nobody picked this team to be where they are. However, there were multiple breakdowns against the Canadians in the final game of the preliminaries.
Halak’s clear late in the first period resulted in a 2-0 Canada lead. Roman Josi’s broken stick in the offensive zone led to a 2-on-1 against a defenseman without a stick, resulting in a 3-1 score. Some ill plays cannot be avoided (like a broken stick), but if Europe is to be successful, these miscues cannot occur.
It will take a full 60-minute effort from the Europeans, with a full commitment to Krueger’s gameplan, if they expect to be champions. If they stray away from it and allow too many opportunities for their opponents, this will be a quick series.
The Game Changer: Sidney Crosby. The two-time Stanley Cup champion continues to be a force for Team Canada. He leads the tournament in points (7) and is tied for the lead in both goals (3) and assists (4). His plus-7 is also tops in the tournament. His wizardry with the puck, as well as his back-checking ability, has been key to Canada’s domination through the tournament so far.
Crosby’s line, which also consists of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, has been the benchmark for all teams in the World Cup.
Crosby’s best game was when he was most expected to step up: the losers-go-home semifinal contest against Russia. For the third time in four games, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain opened the scoring for his team (and it was a doozy).
He assisted on Marchand’s equalizer at 17:36 of the second period, feeding him an on-the-tape pass while in a position most would shoot. His final point, an assist, came while on the rush. His speed through the neutral zone opened up Marchand in the high slot, who made no mistake in beating Bobrovsky.
Crosby is the fire that ignites Team Canada. When he gets on a roll, the entire Canadian roster follows suit.
What It Will Take to Win: Team Europe will do everything in their power to shut down Canada’s surging offense, taking away the middle of the ice on every opportunity. Even Team Canada’s big bodies will be forced to work from behind the net and along the boards.
Europe will allow Canada puck control to a certain extent; they are looking to keep shot counts low and scoring chances to a few per period. They know they are outgunned by the Canadian squad — they are hoping that their steady defense, solid goaltending and a few odd-man breaks will squeeze them out some low-scoring victories.
If Canada is to combat this, they will need to make Europe play a Canadian game. If they can continue their offensive artistry with the puck, eventually, a European defender will chase the puck. This is where Canada can take advantage, looking for an open man somewhere in the middle or in front of the net.
Team Canada is not only a solid offensive team, but a patient defensive team. If they are hemmed in their zone by the Europeans, the defense likely will not break down and leave players unguarded. They have proven to not allow this to happen through the tournament. It will be a major key to victory.
With the absolute firepower and superior defensive abilities, Canada should be able to close out Team Europe in two games. However, Europe should not have made the semifinals. They also should not have defeated Team Sweden. But they did.
Team Europe is a surprise; if Canada takes them lightly, this series has the potential to be three games you won’t soon forget.
Tuesday, Sept. 27; 8 ET
ESPN, CBC, TVAS
Thursday, Sept. 29; 8 ET
ESPN2, CBC, TVAS
Game 3 *if necessary
Saturday, Oct. 1; 7 ET
ESPN2, CBC, TVAS
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