It was on media day, before the World Cup began, when Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger was asked to assess Canada’s chances in a tournament where it entered as the heavy odds-on favourite. Krueger is a Canadian who worked as a special assistant to coach Mike Babcock on the 2014 men’s Olympic team, and helped to design the game plan that permitted Canada to win the tournament without losing a single game.
Krueger knows how good Canada can be when it is on its game and predicted: “It’ll take a magical day, a world-class goaltending performance – or something very, very special to beat Canada on this ice.”
In fact, Team Europe did get a world-class goaltending performance from Jaroslav Halak on Wednesday night, which helped keep its game against Canada close for a while.
But in the end, Canada received first-period goals from Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews in a 4-1 victory over Europe, which clinched first place in the Group A standing. The Canadians were the only team in the tournament to manage a perfect six points in the round robin. The reward for that will be to play the second-place finisher in Group B, either Russia or Team North America, in Saturday’s semi-final.
Europe, meanwhile, finished second in Group A to earn a date with Sweden in the other semi-final on Sunday. Europe hammered the Swedes 6-2 in exhibition play, and if Team Europe could duplicate that result in the semi-final, there is a chance it could get another crack at the Canadians when the finals begin next week.
For anyone who thinks the best part of hockey involves tactical play and defensive efficiency, stuff that glues you to your seat, then the Canada-Europe confrontation probably looked like a masterpiece.
For anyone else – people who might want to see flow in the game; or chances exchanged; or mistakes made – well, you needed to tune in four hours earlier to watch Team North America to see any of that.
There was little urgency in the nightcap, understandable perhaps because both the Canadian and European teams had booked their places in the semi-finals after two games already.
Players at this experience level understand that in an essentially meaningless game, the priority is getting through injury-free.
Babcock made three lineup changes on Wednesday night, starting Corey Crawford in goal and giving Carey Price the night off. Up front, Claude Giroux went in for Ryan Getzlaf and on defence, Jake Muzzin stepped in to play for Shea Weber, so they could each rest minor hurts.
Under Krueger and his staff, the Europeans have quickly become experts at falling back defensively, a tactic that captain Anze Kopitar has acknowledged, on a couple of occasions, can be boring and sometimes maddeningly effective.
In order to win playing that way, however, you need to get a little lucky, too.
Canada held a 17-4 edge in first-period shots on goal, but Halak kept the lead down to two.
Europe didn’t have much going offensively until Crawford’s Chicago Blackhawks’ teammate, Marian Hossa, scored a fluky goal, wristing a shot from a bad angle 4:38 into the second period that somehow squeezed between Crawford’s legs and made the game close for a while.
In fact, it sat like that, Canada leading 2-1, for the longest time, or until the Canadians caught a break of their own when Europe defenceman Roman Josi shattered his stick, trying to take a slap shot. Logan Couture was quick to scoop up the puck and get it up to Toews, who led a two-on-one rush and finished off the play himself, blowing a shot past Halak to restore Canada’s two-goal cushion.
With nothing to lose, Europe started to play more aggressively in the third, down by two, but ultimately, it made little difference in the final outcome.
Canada will need to await the results of Thursday’s game between Russia and Finland to learn its semi-final opponent. Finland, at 0-2, has nothing to play for except pride, but Russia is a historical rival, and a win there would give the Finns something positive to take out of the tournament.
If that happens, then the dream matchup everybody’s been imagining – Canada’s senior men’s team against those fun-to-watch Young Guns – would occur in the semis. It’s probably a long shot at this stage, too much to hope for, really, to see how the speed of the precocious 24-and-unders might put pressure on Canada’s stifling defensive posture.
Mostly, Canada went in to Wednesday’s game trying to maintain good work habits and follow Babcock’s mantra of trying to get better every day. It isn’t always entertaining, but don’t bother telling him that. Putting on a show isn’t in the game plan. They only care about winning. Nothing else matters.Report Typo/Error