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Auston Matthews of Team North America celebrates his first-period goal against Team Russia during the World Cup of Hockey on Sept. 19, 2016 in Toronto. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Auston Matthews of Team North America celebrates his first-period goal against Team Russia during the World Cup of Hockey on Sept. 19, 2016 in Toronto. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Team North America’s youngsters don’t want World Cup run to end early Add to ...

For two weeks now, these players from different countries, teams and conferences have bonded. They’ve also captivated a large viewing audience in Canada and the United States, and given high-end national teams from Finland and Russia fits in the defensive zone.

But now, Team North America is up against its toughest test – an organized and undefeated Swedish team – and facing elimination at the World Cup of Hockey on Wednesday afternoon.

They don’t want this thrill ride to end early.

“We’ve come together so quickly as a team,” said Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado’s 2013 first-overall pick who has been one of the under-24 team’s top players through two tournament games, with two points and nine shots on goal. “We love hanging out with each other. I think this has been more fun than the World Juniors. Guys are in the NHL now. Everybody’s playing for the team. Everybody’s pretty selfless. I think that’s the biggest difference.”

That’s a bold statement – comparing this never-before-seen format at a World Cup to the beloved holiday junior tournament – but it speaks to how much the NHL’s best young Canadian and American players have enjoyed combining forces, in front of partisan crowds, for one of the biggest tests of their careers.

In terms of talent, this is the highest-calibre team the players have ever been on – with four lines of forwards who are current or future first-liners on their NHL teams. And at times they’ve dominated both their opponents and the highlight reels.

Other than what head coach Todd McLellan called “a six-minute lapse” in a 4-3 loss to Russia on Monday, the kids have dictated the pace of their games, heavily out-shooting the Finns and Russians. What made their performance more impressive Monday was the fact they were playing their second game in two nights and that the Russians were facing all-but-guaranteed elimination – and humiliation back home – if they lost.

They were desperate. And they still needed netminder Sergei Bobrovsky to bail them out.

“It’s an unbelievable team,” Russia’s Evgeni Malkin said of the young guns.

“I thought we were the better team prior and post [the lapse],” McLellan said of the six minutes when Russia scored four goals. “The goaltender played tremendous – especially down the stretch. But you have to play every minute every night, and we didn’t.”

While Russia relies on one of the highest-octane offences in the world and a somewhat suspect defence, Sweden presents a much different challenge. Team North America’s youngsters will face a stifling defensive crew – led by Erik Karlsson and Oliver Ekman-Larsson – that has the benefit of goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopping whatever gets through.

Sweden has allowed only one goal through two games – it beat Finland 2-0 on Tuesday afternoon – and is on the cusp of qualifying for this weekend’s semi-final.

“The [defencemen] on Sweden are very, very strong,” MacKinnon said of the differences he expects to see from their game against Russia. “But they have great forwards as well. They’re a solid team.”

“We have to make sure we use our speed,” said Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin, who spent part of Monday’s game on the bench when Russia began to press. “We’ve got to bring those guys [on Sweden’s blueline] to the net and make sure they’re tired out there and make sure they’re stopping.”

He smiled. “It’s going to be a great game,” he added.

McLellan had his game face on after a brief practice on Tuesday. He wants to see more from players such as Drouin and Jack Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres teenage wunderkind. He knows Team North America will need some outstanding performances from new sources in order to advance.

He explained that he plans to shorten his bench dramatically if he has to – which could mean huge minutes for captain Connor McDavid and defenceman Morgan Rielly – as his team will have multiple days off to recover if they make the semi-final.

At their best, McLellan said, his kids can beat anyone in the tournament. More importantly, he added, they know it.

“The ability to roll four lines out, of a very skilled and [high] pace level – it doesn’t fall off, so our opposition doesn’t necessarily get a breather,” McLellan said when asked why his team has been successful already in the tournament. “When we’re playing well, [the other team’s players] don’t get a chance to regroup and get that pause in the flow of the game. And the belief system – there’s a lot of courage in that locker room. The young guys believe that they can do it.”

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