Team Europe delivers ‘the unexpected,’ stuns USA

Jaroslav Halak made 35 saves for the shutout and Europe opened the 2016 World Cup of Hockey with a win over the United States.

TORONTO – “At warp speed, things are going to happen beginning on Saturday, and everybody here in this room should expect the unexpected. That’s what’s exciting, too, about this tournament, and we’re going to tap into being part of that unexpected.” — Ralph Kruger, Team Europe coach

Paying attention now?

Dormant for a dozen autumns, the return of hockey’s World Cup began with a one-anthem game in Toronto, inarguably the centre of the hockey universe for a fortnight.

Only this one involved nine different nations.

It was the club that declined a ceremonial song — the newfangled one composed of bilingual and trilingual veterans Voltron-ing together from eight different countries — that stood up and rose to the occasion.

The members of Team Europe, which stunned Team USA 3-0 late Saturday afternoon and got a head start in surviving Group A, couldn’t possibly play for the crest on the front, a logo concocted in an Adidas lab after many a corporate brainstorm session. So they played for the smaller, various flag patches on their shoulder.

Denmark and Slovenia and Norway could never hope to upset Team USA, but the sum being greater than its parts is so hockey.

And so is this: The U.S. was outshot in each pre-tournament game it played, yet came out with a 2-1 record. Today, the Americans owned the shot clock 35-17 and came up empty.

“We didn’t see ourselves as just a sideshow, ever,” Kruger said after a victory that wasn’t supposed to happen.

An upset?

“We don’t like to call it that way,” said defenceman Christian Ehrhoff, who is not employed for the 2016-17 NHL season. “We were probably a little underestimated.”

Ranked at or near the bottom (gulp) on most assessments of team strength heading into the tournament, Europe’s smarts and experience won out on this day.

No other entrant here has as many international games under its collective belt, and only Team Canada’s room has more Stanley Cup rings.

Beware: the optimistic and opportunistic Team Europe, a dreamt-up squad repping for more than 200 million people overseas, is improving with each game it plays. Ehrhoff described the dressing room as “intense, focused and eager to get going.”

Turns out, those two embarrassing tune-up losses to young, speedy Team North America by a combined score of 11-4 were the best thing for Anze Kopitar, Zdeno Chara, Jaroslav Halak and company.

“I thank the kids for spanking us so hard,” Kruger said. “We couldn’t have played a better opponent at the beginning.”

A 6-2 drubbing of Sweden in their final pre-tournament game jolted the confidence and turned out to be just an appetizer.

When the Euros first united, they tended to stick in cliques according to their native languages. Kruger says he has kept his distance, for the most part, allowing the guys to bond over soccer games. Now at team meals, he notes, they’ve blended. An identity is forming organically.

Team Europe, cheekily, selected The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” as its goal song.

Thrice it was cued up at Air Canada Centre, first by Marian Gaborik, who buried a lovely Frans Nielsen feed past L.A. teammate Jonathan Quick (.824 save percentage). The second after red-hot Leon Draisaitl, who had the secondary assist on his own goal (and fourth in two games) when he and Nino Niederreiter broke in on a 2-on-0 when Patrick Kane gave the puck away at the offensive blue line.

“I’ll definitely take the fault on that one. That’s a play that I’ve made a million times in my career,” Kane said. “That’s unacceptable from me.”

Unless Team USA rallies with a couple of wins next week, starting on Tuesday against Canada — “the big dog,” Derek Stepan says — “unacceptable” is how U.S. fans will view GM Dean Lombardi’s decisions for this best-on-best, starting with John Tortorella.

The head coach has been juggling lines all camp. Unable to find a spot for Dustin Byfuglien at defence or forward, Tortorella sat the big man in the press box. Then he failed to find an offensive solution to Kruger’s patience-and-pounce approach.

“Developing quality scoring chances, it was a struggle for us,” Tortorella said.

“We’re chasing the tournament. It’s a spot that we didn’t want to be in. It’s a very dangerous spot. But we are here.”

The birthdates of U.S.-born snipers Johnny Gaudreau and Jack Eichel hurt the Americans. But remember, this is team that passed on Phil Kessel, that took two Johnsons (Jack and Erik) but not a third (Tyler), and that chose Brandon Dubinsky – who committed a high-sticking double minor in a desperate third period – over Kyle Okposo.

Besides Maple Leaf James van Riemsdyk, who bolted out the gate flying on home ice for the first time since January, the Americans looked flat on the forecheck, disengaged around the net, and prone to cough-ups.

“I don’t think I’ve seen that many odd-man rushes in a long time. That just worked perfectly for our game,” Ehrhoff said.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare sealed it with a tip-in, and now France has more goals than the U.S.

Sample “Seven Nation Army” lyric: “And I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding…

The U.S. could not generate quality scoring chances on Halak, who didn’t have to be brilliant until late. They sat one of their only 30-goal men, Kyle Palmieri.

The Americans have been outscored 9-0 in their last three best-on-best games, dating back to Sochi. In fact, the last player to score a goal for Team USA is Kessel. He wasn’t invited to Team Europe’s coming-out party.

“At the end of the day,” Zach Parise said, “we’ve got to score some goals.”

It’s time.

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