Oh yeah, these kids are all right. Team North America, featuring the top U.S. and Canadian NHL players age 23 and younger, absolutely rolled over Finland in their first game at the World Cup of Hockey, en route to a 4-1 victory.
It was the kind of performance that was affirming for the many that started believing that this team could be a legitimate threat in the tournament and eye-opening for anyone who didn’t. The young players showed us a glimpse of why the future of the NHL is so bright with their blinding speed, an abundance of skill and a relentless offensive attack.
Their best defense was keeping the puck in Finland’s end and barely ever letting it out. The result was goal after goal and the most entertaining performance by any team through the first four games of the tournament.
Among the North American goal scorers Sunday night: Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon. Goalie Matt Murray looked sharp as he made 24 saves on 25 shots.
Here are some key takeaways from North America’s convincing win.
1. If North America has a weakness, it didn’t show any vs. Finland
We knew about the speed, we knew about the skill, but we didn’t know what Team NA would look like under the bright lights of the big tournament. Given how impressive the young players have been so far in their NHL careers, there wasn’t much concern about confidence, but going head-to-head with a typically well-structured team like Finland would test any team.
What we learned is that the speed and skill nullified any structure the Finns tried to play with. The North Americans overwhelmed their opponents with a quick transition and creativity in the offensive zone to create sustained pressure. They took shots just about every chance they got and were so good at retrieving the puck that Finland would go long stretches without any control.
The first period was a little more even, which is where we saw Finland get a little more puck time and create chances. But every time they found a breakdown in the North American defense, Matt Murray was there to make a key stop.
The Pittsburgh Penguins goalie was a valued last-line of defense, particularly in the first period when he made 12 saves. He didn’t see nearly as much action the rest of the way.
Another question for North America was its defense. How would they hold up? They were every bit involved in North America winning the possession battles and keeping the puck away from their net. Finland never got much of a chance to test them. It was a truly dominant performance.
2. Team North America’s first goal made this box score frame-worthy
Hockey historians may look at the box score from this game years from now and note that Team North America’s first goal was scored by Jack Eichel, assisted by Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid.
These are the three most talked-about prospects in years and they all were in on the first power-play goal. It wasn’t necessarily the most skillfull play we’ll see these guys make, but it was a pretty incredible way to kick off the tournament for this team.
The top two picks in 2015 and the No. 1 pick in 2016 all still have much to prove in their NHL careers, but if they deliver on their potential, we’re going going to be talking about the embarrassment of riches on this team for years to come.
McDavid is easily the most important Canadian prospect since Sidney Crosby, while Eichel and Matthews are very much integral to the future of American hockey. We’ll never get to see all three on the same team again aside from all-star games perhaps. We only had to wait 5:03 of game time to see them deliver together.
3. Can we talk about Johnny Gaudreau’s sensational deflection?
Johnny Gaudreau is one of the most skilled players in the game today. So much so that even his deflection goals can turn into hockey art. Take, for example, the goal he scored that gave North America a 2-0 lead.
After a really nice play from Colton Parayko to keep the puck in the zone, the big St. Louis Blues defenseman fired a quick shot towards the net. It looked as though it would go wide, but that’s when Gaudreau crossed in front of the net. He was facing the wrong way to catch the deflection, but the Calgary Flames forward leaped to turn his body and get his stick on the puck.
That’s a player that just knows what to do in every single situation. The hand-eye coordination and the awareness to make such a play is off the charts. Let’s see how it looked from ice level:
The skill Gaudreau possesses and the creativity that oozes out of him every time he hits the ice is why the Flames should probably back up the dump truck of money for a max extension. This isn’t the kind of player you want to risk getting away.
4. Other numbers of note
We talked about how Team NA didn’t show any signs of weakness, but here’s a look at just how dominant they were.
- North America dominated the shot counter with 43 shots on Pekka Rinne, who had a lot of pucks get through him that could have made the score line a lot uglier if not for a few lucky breaks. Finland managed to direct 25 pucks to the net.
- It gets even more lopsided when we look at the total shot attempts at 5-on-5. North America held 73-31 advantage in that department. That’s a Corsi-for percentage of 70.1 for Team NA, which is absolutely ludicrous. Not a single player was in the red when it comes to possession numbers.
- Ten different players registered a point for Team NA as they spread out the offense. Colton Parayko was the only player with multiple points, as he had assists on the second and third goals thanks to his ability to direct pucks to the net from the point.
- Matt Murray made 24 stops, half of which came in the first period when things were a little more even.
Here’s a look at all three goals from the second period as well:
From start to finish, top to bottom, this was as close to perfect as a hockey team can get. What a way to start the tournament.
5. North America doesn’t get much time to enjoy this one
North America has to turn right around and play Russia Monday night. They’re going to be going head-to-head with a team that has a lot more depth at forward than Finland and one that’s in desperation mode after losing to Sweden Sunday.
Russia gets a few extra hours of rest after losing this afternoon’s game to Sweden, 2-1, but fatigue shouldn’t be much of an issue for the youthful North Americans. The Russian squad is full of players with a lot of high-level international experience, though, so this is going to be a terrific test for North America.
The two clubs will meet at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Source: CBS Sports Headlines / North America dazzles in dominant World Cup win over Finland: 5 takeaways