After losing Game 1 of the World Cup of Hockey final, Team Europe centre Frans Nielsen said his side had to play "a perfect game" and "not a beautiful game" to have any shot at beating a powerhouse Canadian squad.
A third and deciding game will not be needed because the Europeans, while able to sustain a far from beautiful game for 60 minutes, fell just a handful of shifts short of what they (but just about nobody else) would have considered perfection.
Outmanned, the underdogs went about their business as dispassionately and remorselessly as a team of accountants and with the same degree of flair. For them, perfection was hockey without consequential errors. They made three egregious ones all night and the last two gave Canada a 2-1 win in the game and a sweep of the best-of-three World Cup of Hockey final.
Team Canada and its fans could celebrate at the close of the tournament Thursday night even though the evening was approximately six minutes of doubt, 53 minutes of dread and 44 seconds of euphoria cued up.
No team in this tournament played Canada as tough as contingent cobbled together by GM Miroslav Satan and coach Ralph Krueger and their squad had the unenviable task of playing the host nation three times. Each game the Rest-of-Europe squad drew a goal closer—losing 4-1 in their meaningless tilt in the opening round, 3-1 in the first game of a final and just one puck light of at least forcing an overtime in the last game of the event.
Zdeno Chara opened the scoring six minutes into the first period, cruising from the left point to the face-off circle unchecked, wiring a snapshot high to Carey Price’s glove side. Chara was in too deep to give Price any chance to react. The shot was perfectly timed and perfectly placed by the towering blue-liner whose unforced giveaway in Episode 1 of this short-run series led directly to Steven Stamkos’s game-winning goal.
Chara’s second goal of the tournament wasn’t complete redemption—he has struggled on and off this month. At his height, six-feet-nine, those struggles are pretty conspicuous and at his age, 39, those struggles are to be expected.
The Europeans had to think themselves unlucky not to go into the first intermission up 2-0. Or at least not to have a free shot to add to their lead.
Killing a hooking penalty to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Marian Hossa wound up with a shorthanded breakaway. Canadian point-man Brent Burns gave chase and used Hossa’s gloves as a piñata, hacking away at least three times. Hossa tried to deke Price but couldn’t do anything artful enough to beat him.
When the whistle was blown, Hossa looked for a signal to skate out to centre ice for a penalty shot. No dice. It wasn’t the longest breakaway you’ll ever see but it was clear enough—Burns was fully in his wake and had to use all his reach to rap Hossa hands. Burns went to the box for misdemeanour hooking.
At least a few times Team Europe had chances to get in front by a pair. Late in the second period Tobias Rieder skated in alone on Price. A minute before the second intermission Mats Zuccarello deflected a point shot that Price blocked but never saw coming.
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For long stretches of the third, it looked like Canada wasn’t going to get a chance never mind a goal. A couple shifts in, Roman Josi, the Euro side’s top blue-liner, was whistled for delay of game and many thought that would be the catalyst for a push by the Canadians. Instead, the Canadian power play didn’t generate anything in the way of a serious scoring chance.
In fact, European captain Anze Kopitar and 37-year-old Marian Hossa controlled the puck on a shorthanded cycle in the Canadian end. At that point it didn’t look like there was a whole lot of try in some very famous names.
In the first game of the final, Krueger kept Kopitar on the ice for the last three-and-a-half minutes, Team Europe’s best player being the last, best hope.
Kopitar was not on the bench at that juncture Thursday night but unfortunately for Krueger and company he wasn’t on the ice either. The Slovenian was in the penalty box having taken a holding penalty at the edge of Jaroslav Halak’s crease—it might have been a no-call half the time. Kopitar declined to describe his thoughts about the call after the game. "I don’t know if I should say that out loud," he said and left it at that.
From the box he didn't see Patrice Bergeron deflect the puck past Halak. "i was looking at the boards," Kopitar said. All square at one.
Team Europe still had a glorious chance to prevail on the night and force a third game. With about 90 seconds to go, with Drew Doughty off the ice for high-sticking Rieder, Josi, Europe’s and maybe the tournament’s best defenceman, wired a shot from the top of the circle that beat Price but pinged off the post.
A few breaths later, Brad Marchand’s shot drifted past Halak and the air pressure in the ACC was restored in full.
Kopitar clearly took the loss hard.
"Obviously very disappointing," he said, his words coming in fits and starts. "I’m really proud of this team because everyone thought we’d be the laughing joke of this tournament. We gave it our all.
"Everybody bought in to everything we tried to do. We gave Canada a pretty good run for it. After the dust settles we think of this as a really good experience—we don’t know if there will ever be another Team Europe anytime soon."
Even if there is another Team Europe in some other iteration in a tournament down the line, it’s hard to imagine it will be another team like this one, an outfit of stars that for a few weeks bought fully into a philosophy of discipline coupled with caution.
So close to perfection and victory, so far from beautiful.