By Chris Johnston – Sportsnet
As Team Canada rolls towards the World Cup of Hockey final, it doesn’t see the two-tone sweater and unusual crest of its opponent.
There is no real thought given to the fact it will be trying to take down a collection of eight disparate nations.
No, what the Canadians see when they look at Team Europe is a team that has Anze Kopitar playing big minutes as a first-line centre and Roman Josi driving its top defence pairing. A team with Jaroslav Halak looking sharp in goal.
A team with a lot of really good NHL players who are worthy of their respect.
“They’re a great story, and shame on us if we don’t take them serious for what they’ve done to this point,” said GM Doug Armstrong.
The best-of-three final that gets underway at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night will be described as “David vs. Goliath.”
Looking at the rosters, the history and the situation, that may even be an understatement.
However, the biggest reason to expect this final to be a two games and done affair is the fact Goliath is wearing glasses. There is a clear-eyed approach to the way Team Canada is embracing this challenge that suggests it’s unlikely to get caught off-guard once the puck drops.
“Well I just think when you put all of those countries together there’s lots of good players there,” said coach Mike Babcock. “I like their back end, I like their goaltending. I think they’ve done a really good job through the middle of the rink with their team there. They’ve got a good looking team.
“So that’s why you play these games is all the experts can predict whatever they want. You’ve got to play the games and decide.”
It may be a simple truth, but it often gets forgotten until something surprising inevitably happens at a best-on-best tournament.
Something like Team Europe putting Team USA on the ropes immediately by winning the opening game. Or something like it following that up with a preliminary round victory over the Czech Republic and a 3-2 overtime win against Sweden in the semifinals where it played like every bit the equal of the world’s No. 2 hockey nation.
They have come further than even they could have imagined after being outscored 9-1 by Team North America over the first four periods of pre-tournament play.
Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger had said earlier in the event that “it’ll take a magical day, it’ll take a world-class goaltending performance, it’ll take something very, very special” for anyone to beat Canada here.
His group is the only one still with a chance.
“There’s opportunity there for us that we’re going to try and find,” said Krueger. “We want to make it difficult for Canada to win the World Cup.”
If nothing else, he will have an unusual amount of insight into the challenge after serving on Team Canada’s coaching staff at the Sochi Olympics. Krueger’s primary tasks there were helping adapt the game to the big ice from a tactical standpoint while preparing the group for how its European opponents would chase an upset.
It has been a decade since Team Canada truly suffered one of those.
Of course, Krueger was there as coach of the Swiss team that delivered the 2-0 victory against the Canadians in the preliminary round of the Turin Olympics.
His Team Europe group has far more skill and experience than Switzerland ever did, and we should expect to see the absolute best from Kopitar, Mats Zuccarello, Tomas Tatar and Marian Hossa in the only international games of this calibre they’ll likely ever get to play.
Their national teams aren’t at a level to threaten the big dogs and the plan from the beginning was to use Team Europe as a one-and-done concept, with a qualifying system implemented before the next World Cup in 2020.
Krueger has seized on the fact his group has no past and no future. They might as well live in the moment because they only have two or three games left against Team Canada.
“I think the better we do, the lower the chances might be that Team Europe gets invited back,” said Krueger, with a laugh. “That’s a joke. But it’s the opportunity in this that we’ve tapped into.”
In the final, they’ll face obvious challenges with Team Canada’s ridiculous forward depth and world-class goaltending, but the fact they’re being taken seriously will hurt too.
The gameplan will no doubt be centred around trying to play a smart, patient, frustrating style. The only problem is Team Canada doesn’t seem prone to those weaknesses.
“Frustration’s a waste of time so let’s put that aside,” said Babcock. “They’re going to make you work and earn your way. I don’t think anybody gets to a final in anything worth winning and doesn’t expect to have to work to get that done.
“We’ll try to be as workmanlike as we possibly can and go about our business.”
The business of winning.