The youthful Team North America came as advertised — plenty of speed and skill — and it proved too much for Team Europe in the first pre-tournament test for both teams at the World Cup of Hockey.
North America scored three goals in a 4:43 span of the second period and Matt Murray made 23 saves in a 4-0 victory over a European side that had several players still adjusting to playing on the smaller NHL-size ice.
“Speed and hockey sense were on display tonight,” said Connor McDavid, the 19-year-old Edmonton Oilers phenom who was named North America captain before the game.
The European side had only 10 players at its first skate on Monday, with others joining the next day after playing in an Olympic qualifying tournament. The combination of rust, jet-lag and small ice left them with little resistance as North America, made up of players under 24, buzzed around for two periods before the Europeans finally settled down in the third. Shots ended up at 23-21 in favour of Europe.
While McDavid was held without a point despite several chances, MacKinnon’s line with Nugent-Hopkins and youngster Auston Matthews put on a show.
Luca Sbisa was serving a tripping penalty when MacKinnon took the rebound of an Aaron Ekblad point shot off the end boards and beat Jaroslav Halak at the side of the net at 3:52 of the second frame.
Nugent-Hopkins lost and recovered the puck twice to score on a solo effort at 6:22 and Gaudreau finished a two-man rush with Brandon Saad at 8:34.
There had to be Montreal Canadiens fans in the building as Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara was booed regularly. They were delighted when Chara hooked down MacKinnon, who was speeding to the net, at 11:52 of the third period. That drew a penalty shot and the Colorado winger scored on a deke to the backhand after a slow approach to the net.
“He’s an electrifying player,” Matthews said of MacKinnon. “His skating and puckhandling are unbelievable, some of the best I’ve ever seen.
“It was easy to play with him and Nugent-Hopkins, who is a smart, 200-foot player who can make plays.”
Centre Jack Eichel, who picked up an assist on Gaudreau’s goal, was also impressed.
“We’re all a little surprised at how good everyone is,” he said. “People make plays you’re not expecting.”
North America coach Todd McLellan said he wanted his side to jump on Europe early and was happy to see them create turnovers and chances for two periods, but wasn’t so pleased to see players staying out for long shifts in the third that led to penalties and too much time defending in their own zone.
He said there is plenty to work on before the teams meet again Sunday in Montreal.
Europe coach Ralph Kruger is also looking forward to the rematch.
“We definitely saw a lot of speed from Team North America right off the hop,” said Kruger. “It took a while to adjust to it.
“I thought that as we went on we were dealing with it better. The third was probably the best period for us and we’ll build on that. We knew half the team had been playing on big ice in the last few weeks. But these games are there to learn and grow. Now we’ve got our first live video of our team to work with.”
North America scratched forward Dylan Larkin, defenceman Colton Parayko and goalie Connor Hellebuyck. Europe sat out forward Thomas Vanek, rearguard Denis Seidenberg and goalie Philipp Grubauer.
NHL vice-president Bill Daly, who spoke to the media during the first intermission, was impressed with the Centre Videotron and the turnout, but had nothing to encourage fans hoping to bring back the Nordiques, who moved to Colorado in 1995. He said there were no plans at the moment for expansion (other than to Las Vegas in 2018) or to relocate another club.
Europe forward Nino Niederreiter of the Minnesota Wild celebrated his 24th birthday.