Until the final night, the 2016 World Cup of Hockey felt more like a coronation than a competition. Canada was trying to duplicate its undefeated gold-medal run at the Sochi Olympics with another romp through the World Cup field.
But Europe had other ideas and for more than 57 minutes, gave the Canadians all they could handle. A hybrid team made up of players from eight of the lesser hockey nations played with the powerful Canadians, shift to shift, stride for stride.
In the end, however, the Canadians found a way, as they always seem to do. Patrice Bergeron scored a power-play goal with only 2:53 to go in regulation to tie the game for Canada and then his Boston Bruins’ linemate Brad Marchand scored the winner – short-handed – with 43.1 seconds on the clock to give Canada a heart-stopping 2-1 victory.
It was Canada’s 16th consecutive win in best-on-best competition and gave Canada the best-of-three final series in two consecutive games.
But Europe proved to be a worthy opponent that played a smart, organized, poised game, doing to Canada what Canada had done to pretty much everybody else previously the tournament.
Of course, any team that took Europe lightly did so at their own peril, right from the tournament opener, where it defeated the United States and started the Americans on a downward spiral and an early exit from the tournament.
A first-period goal by Zdeno Chara got the Europeans on the board and from there, they did a good job of frustrating Canada’s high-octane offence.
Europe coach Ralph Krueger promised that his team would clean up the handful of turnovers that ultimately cost it in a 3-1 loss two nights earlier, and the Europeans mostly did just that, until the bitter end.
Chara, who made one of those egregious errors (which led to the winning goal by Steven Stamkos) played yeoman’s minutes alongside fellow Slovak Andrej Sekera.
Canada had only trailed twice previously in the tournament and on both those occasions, managed to get the tying goal on the board in two minutes or less. This time, it took longer, which also made the finish sweeter, not exactly the same drama of Sidney Crosby’s golden goal in the 2010 gold-medal game – but close.
Until the fabulous finish, which raised the decibel level at the Air Canada Center to its highest levels of the tournament, the single word to describe Canada’s overall performance here was probably clinical. The Canadians were clinical in their approach, clinical in their execution.
They adhered closely to the system installed by coach Mike Babcock and his highly decorated crew of assistants, getting contributions from throughout their line-up.
They were greater than the sum of the individual parts, no mean feat when you consider the individual parts were all pretty good.
Krueger described Canada as a team with four No. 1 lines, and it wasn’t an exaggeration or hyperbole, although the one, led by Crosby, was the most dominant of the group.
Crosby, Bergeron and Marchand combined for 22 scoring points in five games going into the finale; and added the two decisive goals when it mattered most. Crosby was chosen the tournament’s MVP.
One of the strengths of Canada’s team throughout this event – and in the past couple of best-on-best competitions – was having the patience not to panic when they were being thwarted by a quick defensively sound opponent. That poise bubbled to the surface again, with the game on the line.
All that’s left now is to dissect what happened and what can be better next time.
The next best-on-best on the international hockey calendar is the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea and earlier this week, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he expected a decision, one way or another, by the end of the calendar year.
Currently, the International Ice Hockey Federation and president Rene Fasel is acting as the intermediary between the NHL and the International Olympic Committee, which wants to amend the parameters of the NHL’s participation this time around, and not pay the costs associated with transporting 175 or so of its players to Asia or insuring billions of dollars of contracts.
The matter is stuck in an accounting black hole, a negotiation that could go down to the wire.
The only thing for certain is that the World Cup will not come back in its current format in four years. The appetite, even amongst the players, for a Team North America and a Team Europe, is limited, though both proved to be fun to watch and extremely competitive collections of talent.
But the resistance to hybrid teams seemed to increase as the event moved along and several players have said they are more comfortable wearing the flags of their country rather than the symbols of a continent.
Toronto is one of the largest hockey markets in the world, but the competition for the sports dollar was divided here this month, with the Toronto Blue Jays in a playoff hunt. The small gathering for the viewing party on the first night of the final was discouraging. Bad weather permitted the league to cancel Thursday night’s event, and it was probably a good thing.Report Typo/Error