Six things we learned in World Cup preliminary play


Canada's Sidney Crosby (87) skates by during third period World Cup of Hockey action against the Czech Republic, in Toronto on Saturday, September 17, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

That’s a wrap on round-robin play at the World Cup of Hockey.

Thursday night’s matchup between the Czech Republic and Team USA concluded the preliminary round of the tournament. It’s been an eventful week of best-of-best hockey, with a lot happening in such a short period of time. There’s still plenty of action in store with Canada facing off against Russia on Saturday night and Sweden taking on Europe Sunday afternoon in the semifinals to see who will play in the best-of-three final next week.

So as we look ahead to what’s sure to be an awesome weekend of hockey, let’s recap a few lessons we learned from the past week.

USA Hockey has plenty of questions
To say USA’s World Cup tournament was a disappointment for the club would be an understatement. Defenceman Ryan McDonagh called it “as low as it can get.”

What was billed as a tough, gritty, structured squad came up short to the tune of 0-3 and just couldn’t quite find the chemistry or the scoring GM Dean Lombardi and coach John Tortorella envisioned.

Members of the club and its management staff have been vocal about their disappointment, and critics have been quick to lay blame. (Some of which came in Tweet-form.)

This World Cup is the first time in 13 best-on-best tournaments that the U.S. has gone without a single win.

“You guys can say all you want, but within the room we know how we could’ve played, how we should’ve played and are regretting how we did play.” T.J. Oshie said after the game.

There’s no doubt this winless tournament will prompt many questions within USA Hockey and its identity, there’s also no doubting that the state of hockey in the U.S. is going to be just fine, considering the young talents coming down the national pipeline, like Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel, Jacob Trouba, Auston Matthews and other American-born Team North America standouts.

Team North America lived up to the hype
That sound you heard accompanying the final buzzer to confirm Russia’s victory over Finland on Thursday? That was the sound of every hockey fan’s heart breaking upon learning that no, we won’t get to see any more magic from the Young Guns of the tournament. (A Finnish win would’ve meant a North America vs. Canada semifinal on Saturday.)

In just three games’ worth of hockey, the Under-23s won over just about every hockey lover’s heart. By the end of their third game, most of us were shrieking with joy along with Morgan Rielly when Nathan MacKinnon scored that gorgeous OT winner over Sweden.

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Despite the short run in this tournament, it was enough to remind everyone just how fun and electrifying this game of ours is. Their fast-paced, high-scoring style forced opponents on their heels right out of the gate and gave us highlights we’ll be talking about for a long time to come.

We don’t know if this Team North America experiment will live to see another tournament — 19-year-old captain Connor McDavid said he’d like to suit up for Team Canada next time — so in the meantime we’ll just be over here playing the highlights from their overtime win vs. Sweden on repeat.

Did Team Europe have us all fooled?
Too slow, too old, too little chemistry. After two not-so-hopeful showings from Team Europe in pre-tournament play, many were ready to cast this team aside as non-contenders. Yet here we are, eying a semi-final on Sunday between Team Europe and the defence-heavy Swedes.

The squad defeated Team USA and the Czech Republic before losing to Team Canada on Thursday in a matchup to determine who would take top spot in Group A.

The oldest team in this tournament also boasts plenty of experience with proven winners like Anze Kopitar, Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa at the helm. It also presents each of its players with a unique opportunity to finally beat one of hockey’s powerhouse nations in a best-on-best international competition.

So far, they’re proving that they might just make that happen.

Look out for Russia
Russia went into this tournament with a giant question mark and a do-or-die mindset. After struggling in recent international showings, Alex Ovechkin & Co. are desperate to make an impact and bring Russia back into the picture.

As we saw against North America and again versus Finland, the Russians will make you pay for your mistakes.

While they struggled in their first game against a tough Swedish team, they gained momentum against the high-flying North American squad and kept it up against Finland on Thursday to earn the right to play this weekend.

Despite Don Cherry blasting the team’s coaching, the group is picking up steam when it matters most. And it’s about time — this trip to the semis will be Russia’s first time in the final four of a best-on-best tournament since the 2006 Olympic Games. Superstars Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin haven’t seen the kind of ice time they’re used to (then again, few have in this tournament) with the squad rolling out a consistent four lines.

Now, about their semifinal opponents…

Canada perfect in the preliminary
Year after year, Team Canada shoulders some pretty heavy expectations when entering international competition. And year after year, they deliver.

This World Cup has been no exception, with Team Canada being the only undefeated squad of the tournament.

While Team North America stole some hearts — and some fans — Team Canada’s deep roster proved they could get the job done for the 13th consecutive time in best-on-best competition. We’ve seen points from all but four players on the roster, with eight forwards with multiple points through round-robin. Jonathan Toews leads the way to the tune of three goals and one assist.

The team that gave them the biggest challenge was Russia, as the two clubs went into OT in pre-tournament play, with Canada claiming victory.

In other words, find a television on Saturday and don’t look away. We’re in for a good old fashioned rivalry game.

Finland’s got some work to do
After so much recent success — especially at the junior level — many in the hockey world had Team Finland penciled in as a contender to make some noise at the World Cup. Unfortunately for the Finns, all we heard was one lonely goal celebration. The Finns’ single goal came from Valtteri Filppula in their very first game, a 4-1 loss to North America. They were then shut out by Sweden and Russia.

Yes, they struggled skill-wise. But a lot of it was also a series of bad bounces, broken sticks and so. many. goal. posts. (Soon-to-be NHL rookie Patrik Laine can attest to that.)

Unlike their Scandinavian rivals to the west, Finland couldn’t rely much on their defence, either. Where Sweden’s blue line has earned a reputation as being the best in the world, Finland’s is going through some growing pains. Olli Maatta and Rasmus Ristolainen were considered the leaders of this defence but they’re still developing.

“I think we created a lot of chances,” Teuvo Teravainen said after the game. “It just didn’t bounce at this tournament for us.”

This tournament simply wasn’t the right time for the transitioning Finns, but four years from now? Watch out.

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