After a lot of talk in the months leading up to the World Cup of Hockey, Team North America finally made its debut. From the first drop of the puck, the speed was on display from both the under-24 stars and the relatively young Finns.
An early power play opened up the ice for the skill of the North Americans to get to work. The forwards were buzzing around Pekka Rinne’s crease until Jack Eichel was able to pot a short rebound past him to give the game its first goal.
The team came very close moments later to extending it to a two-goal lead, with Connor McDavid setting a screen that allowed the puck to get behind Rinne, but its momentum died on the goal line and it was swept away by Ville Pokka.
The North Americans’ speed was evident all over the ice, both in their individual foot speed and their puck movement. The players employed an interesting tactic to open up the ice while carrying the puck. On three occasions in the first 12 minutes, I noticed a forward recognizing a Finnish defender was closing in, bracing for the impact of the hit, and passing the puck at the exact moment the defender connected with his check.
Normally, you see players pass the puck before they can get hit, or attempt to wriggle their way past a bodycheck. This new strategy proved very effective in drawing in defenders and opening up lanes for speedy linemates to move into to keep the puck advancing, and the more mobile young stars would easily get back up to speed after the collision to join the rush.
Another flurry of activity around the Finnish net resulted in the puck getting behind Rinne and dying right on the line for a second time. Mark Scheifele battled hard to get to it and push it over the goal line, but ended up forcing a Finnish defenceman into the goaltender, who knocked the puck into the net, and that led to a reverse in the call on the ice after a review.
After a great job by Colton Parayko to knock the puck down on an attempted zone clearance by Finland shortly thereafter, he sent it softly toward the net, and Johnny Gaudreau showed off his hand-eye coordination by deflecting it by Rinne, and (more importantly) over the blue line.
Great hand-eye coordination by Gaudreau. pic.twitter.com/jMdV9CpTK9— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) September 19, 2016
The lead didn’t stay at three for long. Jonathan Drouin got all kinds of space in front of the net, mishandled the puck while attempting to deke, but got a fortunate bounce as the puck squeezed past a helpless Rinne.
The Finns, a fast team in their own right, were no match for the pace of the North Americans, and lost out because of it once again a few minutes later. Swarmed in their own end, an attempt was made to clear the zone, but again Parayko was there to knock it down, this time getting everything behind his powerful slap shot. The puck spilled off Rinne to the waiting stick of Nathan MacKinnon, and he made no mistake to start the blowout.
Ref cam angle of the MacKinnon goal. I really love this view. pic.twitter.com/HQTsr5dqrO— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) September 19, 2016
The Finns decided to play a more tight-checking style after the goal to prevent an embarrassment, and did stop the bleeding of quality chances against. The North Americans showed they were just as capable of playing that style, shutting down every neutral-zone rush the Finns attempted in the final minutes of the second period.
In the third, the Finns were content to clog up the neutral zone, obviously with a mind on getting to the next game — a literal “must-win” contest in just their second match.
That didn’t keep North America from getting their opportunities, but the quality was much lower than they saw in the first two periods of wide-open hockey. Even with the defence-first approach, it was tough to contain the speed.
McDavid is an ok skater. Decent, I guess. pic.twitter.com/CXOEbaMegx— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) September 19, 2016
Leo Komarov had a good shift at the end of the game, laying the body on Parayko behind the North American net and forcing a turnover. The puck went out right in front, and Valtteri Filppula ensured that Matt Murray wouldn’t come out of his first competitive game at the international level with a shutout.
The comeback attempt was limited to that one goal, as North America claimed an impressive 4-1 victory.
- A big reason why Team North America was able to run rampant over the opposition is the fact that Finland’s defence is just as inexperienced. They were indecisive in their defending strategy, unsure whether to attempt to close the gap to the speedy forwards, or move back to stay between the puck and the net. On many occasions, the desicison was changed at the last second, and Finnish defencemen were caught flat-footed while trying to change tactics. Against a more experienced defence, the North Americans probably won’t have as easy a time as they did tonight.
- The Finns also didn’t play a physical game in an attempt to discourage the neutral-zone speed, nor did they have the team size to have it as a viable strategy. Every other team in the tournament has a better average mass, and may be able to use it to slow the under-24s down.
- While Team NA’s defence is young and inexperienced, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Parayko was probably the biggest surprise, especially with his play at the offensive blue line knocking down clearing attempts, showing that he is more than just the hard shot that was his calling card with the St. Louis Blues last season.
- Unrelated to the actual play on the ice, but I’m glad to see the refcam make a return. I mentioned when the NHL first incorporated it into their broadcasts coming out of the lockout how nice it was to be able to see what the officials see. The referees are actually very good cameramen, always moving to the centre of the action and being right on top of the key moments. It’s something I think could spruce up the average hockey broadcast if the neworks stick with it.
Team North America gets right back at it on Monday night versus Russia. It will be the second game in as many nights for both teams. Finland gets an extra day off before they renew their age-old rivaly with Sweden on Tuesday afternoon in a game they have to win to avoid elimination.
Be sure to check back with us before those and every other game of the tournament for previews and up-to-date lineup information beforehand, or catch up on anything you may have missed in our World Cup of Hockey hub.