By Chris Johnston – Sportsnet
In a best-of-three final, this is how Team Canada breaks your heart.
It will start slow and gift you a power play on the opening shift. It will continue to be sluggish, and cough up the puck too often, and open the door of hope ever so slightly. It will deliver its flattest performance in years … and win.
Like the kid who has everything, this group has a way of making all others feel a little bit jealous.
“You’d like things to be perfect every night, but it’s just not real,” said coach Mike Babcock.
What is real is the fact the World Cup is now within reach. Another victory on Thursday will give the country its third straight best-on-best tournament dating back to the 2010 Olympics.
This was as sloppy as we’ve seen Team Canada since the early stages of the Vancouver Games. It hardly mattered.
Coached by Ralph Krueger, the man who assisted Canada in reaching near-perfection in Sochi, Team Europe found a way to disrupt the machine. It forced repeated turnovers during the opening two periods and found itself an unsuccessful Andrej Sekera breakaway from tying the score heading to the third.
The visitors delivered their best.
“We had spurts when we let them outplay us,” acknowledged Canadian defenceman Drew Doughty.
Fortunately, there was Carey Price to cover over the occasional pothole.
A world-class bunch in front of him helped, too, as goals by Brad Marchand and Steven Stamkos both came in transition. Team Canada’s third of the night – which gave it a 3-1 lead at 9:24 of the third period – proved to be a dagger.
First Sidney Crosby almost banked a shot in from behind the goal-line. Then he grabbed the puck, spun off defenceman Mark Streit and slid a backhand pass through Christian Ehrhoff and on to the stick of Patrice Bergeron in the slot.
Imagine being a member of the underdog Team Europe in that moment. You’ve played a great game, got within a whisker of dreaming about an upset and the best player in the world dashes all of those thoughts inside three inspirational seconds.
Crosby now leads the World Cup with nine points in five games, trailed only by linemates Marchand (seven) and Bergeron (six). He’s basically got his hands on the MVP award already.
“I’m not going to say it’s the best hockey he’s ever played because he plays so well in the NHL all the time,” teammate Ryan Getzlaf said of Crosby. “But from when I’ve been playing with him, in the three (previous international) tournaments I’ve had the opportunity, I would say he’s playing unbelievable. Things are working for him now. He’s hot.
“Not that he didn’t play well at the other tournaments, he just didn’t get this hot.”
Team Canada has now reeled off a ridiculous 15 straight victories in best-on-best competition. Even the odd sloppy night is good enough to get by.
So now we’ll spend another day trying to calculate how Team Europe might possibly force a third game in this final series.
On one hand, Krueger’s team should be encouraged. This was its best game of the tournament and the Europeans managed to at least throw a hint of doubt into the outcome.
Despite that, however, they failed to get the job done.
“We’re here to continue to grow and to learn and evolve, and we’re very angry right now, which is a good thing,” said Krueger.
They’ve now had two cracks at Team Canada and can perhaps find a flaw or two heading into the third matchup. There really aren’t any secrets at this point.
Of course, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see Canada’s puck possession game get so disrupted on Thursday. The hallmark of this team is execution and it’ll adjust too.
“Well they’re just patient,” Crosby said of Team Europe. “They sit back a lot. When they do get a turnover, they have some guys who can skate and they come back at you pretty quickly. It’s just a matter of making sure we make good decisions with the puck.
“Just high percentage plays and we did that when we had opportunities.”
There had to be a strange sense of satisfaction in going back to the hotel with the knowledge that a perfect run through this tournament was at hand.
They had dodged a small bullet, and come out no worse for wear.
“Well it wasn’t our best,” said Stamkos. “I think we realize that. At this time of the tournament a win’s a win.”
Particularly when you only need one more to finish the job.