It wasn’t for a championship. It wasn’t even an elimination game. It was, however, one of the most exciting contests in recent hockey history.
The round-robin matchup between Group B favourite Sweden and the dynamic North American Under-24 squad at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey was the game of the tournament and an instant classic.
Sweden was coming off a businesslike 2-1 win over Russia and a 2-0 shutout of rival Finland. They controlled their own destiny and only needed a single point to move onto the next round. North America, on the other hand, had suffered a regulation loss to Russia three days prior and needed a regulation win over the Swedes to guarantee a spot in the semifinals.
Between the balanced Swedish lineup that featured the best blue line in the tournament and a North American team with unmatched quickness that had outshot their opponents 89-50 through two games, the 19,104 fans at Scotiabank Arena (then the Air Canada Centre) figured they were in for a good one – and that’s exactly what transpired.
Longtime Swedish hockey executive and general manager Tommy Boustedt said, “It’s probably the strongest team we ever put together,” yet the poised Scandinavians were taken aback by the sheer speed and aggression of Todd McLellan’s youthful group.
Auston Matthews had been selected first overall by the Maple Leafs at the NHL Draft three months prior to the tournament but hadn’t yet made his NHL debut. So, naturally, the pro Young Guns crowd in Toronto erupted when the teen scored 30 seconds into the game on assists from future teammate Morgan Rielly and preceding No. 1 pick Connor McDavid.
A mere 65 seconds later, Vincent Trocheck was set up by some nifty puck movement from Jack Eichel and Shane Gostisbehere – three players who could’ve been on Team USA had the tournament organizers stuck to nationalities and chosen not to include two all-star rosters (with Europe being the other).
At one point the shots were 11-1, the score was 2-0 and the Swedes looked lost.
“They gave us a slap in the face right away,” two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson said after the game. “Those first two minutes there was probably the most embarrassing that I’ve ever been a part of on a team.”
Three-time Stanley Cup champ Niklas Hjalmarsson said he “felt pretty old” for the first 10 minutes of the game.
Sweden managed to settle down. Fittingly, it was their own young gun, Filip Forsberg, that put them on the board.
Johnny Gaudreau was a water bug out there and in alone on Henrik Lundqvist multiple times throughout the game. He scored on a breakaway to put his team up, 3-1. But after that, King Henrik locked it down.
The game’s dramatic conclusion is what most people remember, but the entire first period was played at a breakneck pace. The crowd lit up whenever Matthews touched the puck, or when McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon built up a head of steam.
Nicklas Backstrom ended up cutting the lead to 3-2 and the shots were 16-16 after 20 minutes.
Lundvist had to stop all 21 shots he faced in the second stanza just to keep his team in the game.
“We gave him a rough start,” Karlsson said of his veteran netminder. “As a goaltender, I don’t think I can even imagine how it feels to be that kind of left alone and let in two quick goals. How we can rebound from that I have no idea.”
Sweden started to carry the play in the third and Patrik Berglund tipped in a Karlsson point shot to tie the game. The score remained 3-3 for the rest of the period, which meant Sweden had advanced and North America no longer controlled its own destiny.
Three-on-three overtime had been adopted by the NHL the year prior, but at the time it was still relatively new and considered somewhat of a novelty or even gimmicky – similar to how a certain segment of hockey fans viewed the inclusion of Team North America before the tournament.
The 60 minutes of regulation was tremendous theatre, yet the players raised the stakes even higher in overtime.
The veteran savvy and vision of the Swedes, along with the offensive creativity and buoyancy of the North Americans was on full display in extra time.
Non-stop, back-and-forth, end-to-end action with only one whistle before the game-winner was scored.
Lundqvist made 45 saves that afternoon, including a 10-beller on McDavid in the overtime period, but he couldn’t stop the 49th shot he faced.
Moments after John Gibson had stoned Daniel Sedin on a breakaway, MacKinnon deked the New York Rangers netminder out of his jockstrap.
“Well, wasn’t that about the most entertaining five minutes of hockey you’ve seen,” Jim Hughson proclaimed on the broadcast.
Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne tweeted: “What a ending. It can’t get better than this. Wow.”
Because they couldn’t get the win in regulation, North America needed Russia to lose to Finland the following day in order to advance to the knockout stage. That didn’t happen.
So, the image of MacKinnon being swarmed by his fellow Young Guns ended up being the final and lasting image of one of the most unique and impressive hockey rosters ever assembled for an international tournament.
“I think we’ve definitely turned some heads and opened the eyes of everyone what the future of the NHL is like,” McDavid said.
Connor, you weren’t kidding.