Team North America explodes early in win over Europe

Watch as Johnny Gaudreau weaves through Team Europe to score a great backhand shot and put Team North America ahead 6-4.

MONTREAL — Coach Todd McLellan felt Team North America lost sight of its game plan after a huge offensive outburst in the first period.

North America won a tight contest 7-4 against Team Europe on Sunday after scoring five goals in the first period in pre-tournament action leading into the World Cup of Hockey.

North America, made up of players 23 and under, was up 5-1 at the first intermission but a sloppy second and third period allowed the Europeans to claw their way back into the game.

“We were making plays, we were fast,” said McLellan of the first 20 minutes. “But the game tightened up and we didn’t do a good job of adjusting. The whole night turned into making nice plays. They forgot about the grit game and the defending.

“These young players want to have fun and play that way, but if we give up four goals a night, we’re not going to have success. We got cute. We got fancy. We have to play a better, solid team game.”

Speed and youth overcame experience in the opening frame as North America was all over the puck. It looked like they were en route to an easy victory after Aaron Ekblad, Dylan Larkin, Morgan Rielly and Johnny Gaudreau all scored in the first.

Ekblad opened the score at 5:20 with a slapshot that went top shelf on German goaltender Thomas Greiss.

Larkin added another 1:07 later before Ekblad went five-hole on Greiss at 7:19 to make it 3-0 for North America.

After Europe’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare cut the deficit to two, Rielly chased Greiss form the game when his shot from the point deflected off Mark Streit and in at 10:22.

Gaudreau added a fifth for North America five minutes later.

“We were on full display right there,” said Auston Matthews, the youngest player on North America. “Just non-stop, in your face, turning the puck over and getting right back on offence. If we play that way, it will be tough to beat us. We had them on their heels.

“It was good to see how quickly we can attack teams. It’s a good sign. We’re definitely making a statement.”

Jaroslav Halak came into the game to replace Greiss in the first. He received a warm welcome from the 17,243 in attendance at the Bell Centre.

The former Montreal Canadiens goalie stopped all 12 shots he faced in the second period, and six-of-seven in the third to keep Europe hanging in.

“We had a slow start and it cost us the game,” said Halak, who was not expected to play on Sunday. “We made it real easy on them. We turned it around in the second. We knew we had to play better. Everyone knew what we had to do out there.”

Halak allowed the Europeans to begin their comeback. Marian Gaborik beat a sprawled-out John Gibson at 4:50 of the second to make it 5-2. North America claimed Gibson was interfered with, but the call stood.

The 34-year-old Gaborik added his second of the period at 19:15, finishing off a great give-and-go between Mats Zuccarello and Frans Nielsen.

Nielsen brought Europe to within one goal at 8:17 of the third, but the comeback was cut short by Gaudreau’s second of the game at 11:29 of the third.

Larkin added his second in an empty net in the game’s final minute.

“We all realize a 7-4 game is not what we wanted,” said Ekblad, who leads his team with four points after two games. “Defensively, in the neutral zone, we have to take care of that. We were sloppy at times. Our second and third period in both games haven’t been up to par.”

North America’s win comes three days after beating Europe 4-0 in Quebec City.

NOTES: 12 players on North America finished with at least a point. … North America captain Connor McDavid finished without a point for the second straight game. … Both teams play one more exhibition match before the tournament begins on Sept. 17.

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