It was barely 10 minutes into what would be Team Europe’s second exhibition-round loss in as many games against Team North America that I had it all but confirmed in my mind that a conglomeration of players from eight different countries probably wasn’t going to find the necessary chemistry to make an unexpected run at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
From my seat, suspended over 80 feet above the ice at the Bell Centre, I was willing to bet this team, coached by Ralph Krueger and anchored on the blue line by aging veterans Mark Streit and Zdeno Chara, would be the first one eliminated from the competition.
By the time Johnny Gaudreau made it 5-1 for Team N.A. at 15:54 of the first period, I was preparing Europe’s obit.
But something happened a few minutes earlier in that game that changed their team’s trajectory and I probably should’ve known better as soon as it did. I had seen Jaroslav Halak come off the bench and perform miracles before — I had seen it in that very building and from that very seat in the press box back in 2010, when he took over from Carey Price and helped the Montreal Canadiens pull off incredible playoff upsets against the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins — and I should’ve held myself back from writing the European team off after he took Thomas Greiss’s spot in their crease.
It was just 14 days later that Tomas Tatar scored the overtime winner in a 3-2 win over Sweden to vault this group into the final. This, of course, was largely due to Halak stopping 29 shots in the game. That outing followed a pattern of stellar World Cup performances from the Slovakian netminder, who recorded 34 saves against the Swedes in a 6-2 win in Europe’s final exhibition game, a 35-save shutout in a tournament-opening victory against Team USA, a 3-2 overtime win over the Czech Republic in which he stopped 28 shots and a 42-save effort in a 4-1 loss to Canada.
The Europeans had pulled off the improbable, but to say anyone was interested in seeing them advance as far — especially after Team North America had displayed unprecedented skill and speed, and with the Russians, Finns, Swedes and Americans all having long-standing rivalries with the Canadians — would be overstating it. This team, with its trap system and random blend of Slovakian, Swiss, Norwegian, Austrian, German, French, Slovenian and Danish players, offered anything but a sexy matchup with Canada for the final.
They were well aware of it, too, and they had fully embraced their role as heels.
"I don’t think anyone wants us here in the tournament and now we’re in the final," said Mats Zuccarello following the semifinal win over Sweden. "I think it’s something we’re really proud of and it’s fun to be here."
But there was little to latch onto as a storyline outside of Halak facing off against Price.
It was barely a month after Halak’s 2010 spring heroics inspired Canadiens fans to paint his name onto stop signs that he was traded to the St. Louis Blues and Price was re-anointed Montreal’s top goaltender. It was a situation that inspired much debate — not only amongst Canadiens fans, but also around the hockey world. And when you consider that both goaltenders hadn’t faced each other in any significant competition over the six years that followed, the opportunity to see them play for all the marbles in a best-of-three final at this tournament added some much-needed flavour to the matchup.
Of course, in the time between Halak’s trade out of Montreal and these pivotal games, Price had established himself as the consensus best goaltender in the world, helping Canada earn a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Games and sweeping the NHL awards in 2015 after a remarkable season with the Canadiens.
He was no pedestrian on Canada’s route to the World Cup final, either. The Anahim Lake, B.C., native may have started off slow with a 4-2 loss to Team USA in exhibition play, but he was unflappable from the minute he regained the net in a 3-2 overtime win over the Russians to the minute Canada lifted the World Cup trophy.
Prior to that, Price sized up his competition.
"Obviously, he’s a pretty quiet guy with a calm demeanor," said Price of his former teammate. "He lets the puck and the play come towards him. Those are a couple of the things he does really well."
Canada’s general manager, Doug Armstrong, who, as GM of the Blues, had traded Lars Eller and Ian Schultz to acquire Halak in 2010, framed it perfectly when he said: "I think there’s going to be, I don’t want to say a rivalry, but both guys know who’s at the other end."
The goaltenders came into the series as the tournament leaders in save percentage — Price was at .948 and Halak at .947 — and the expectation was that Halak would be tested far more than Price.
But, much like in the early stages of exhibition, things didn’t turn out as expected.
The games were tight, the action furious at both ends, and the final shot count in both games — much like the scores — only slightly favoured Canada.
There was no doubt Price was under more pressure, with no one expecting Halak and the Europeans to topple this great Canadian team. He rose to the occasion, stopping 32 of 33 shots he faced in each game. And he saved his best for last — making several highlight-reel saves in the lead-up to Brad Marchand’s winning goal with 44 seconds left in the third period of Game 2.
Price finished the tournament with a .957 save percentage and a 1.40 goals-against average, and if not for Halak posting a .941 and 2.15, the Europeans never would have made it as far.