Of all the participants in this 2016 World Cup, the one with the most buzz is the 23-and-under Team North America. And for good reason. Never before has a roster boasted so much young talent in an international competition. It features 2015 first overall and second overall picks Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel along with 2013 first, second and fourth overall selections Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin.
For good measure, North America also has 2014 number one overall pick and Calder winner Aaron Ekblad and 15th overall pick Dylan Larkin. Not to mention 2016 first overall pick American Auston Matthews, who is playing in front of Toronto at the Air Canada Centre where he’ll star as a Maple Leaf. The magnitude of such a roster which also possesses Pens’ Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray and the Ghost, Shayne Gostisbehere makes them a must see. It also features former Calder winner Johnny Gaudreau and Brandon Saad along with backup John Gibson.
So, when they finally took the ice at 8 PM under the bright lights in the hockey capital, North America gave a showing worthy of captivating hockey fans throughout the world. In easily beating an accomplished Finland team 4-1, they sent a message to the rest of the tournament. What they lack in experience they more than make up for in speed, skill and talent.
By the middle of the second period, you had to feel sorry for Pekka Rinne. He was under siege. North America so dominated in possession time as well as shots (43-25) and scoring chances that they made a very experienced Finn team that also boasted gifted 2016 second overall pick Patrik Laine look average. They were no match for the game’s brightest future stars.
It didn’t take long for the youngest squad to establish itself. Using superior speed and playmaking, they pinned the Finns in for a majority of the first period. It was a brilliant Matthews rush around Rasmus Ristolainen that led to the game’s first goal. Matthews took a McDavid feed in the neutral zone and skated past Ristolainen and in firing a tough low shot on Rinne which resulted in a persistent Eichel steering in the rebound for a power play goal at 5:03.
They easily could’ve had two or three more. Rinne was fortunate a couple of times with one loose puck standing on the goal line while another apparent North America goal was properly reversed due to interference from Mark Scheifele. McDavid thought he had one when he pushed the puck on the line and then saw Rinne knock it in after attempting to freeze play. However, Finland’s challenge was a good one. It showed that an aggressive Scheifele knocked a defenseman into Rinne which resulted in no goal. Something that amused ESPN analyst Brett Hull. It might have something to do with his Stanley Cup clincher for the Stars in ’99 over the Sabres.
An on-rushing Gaudreau also rang one off the crossbar moments later. While Murray displayed his postseason form turning Finland aside when they got shots on goal, Rinne didn’t have time to breathe. He did have some luck on some chances. The accomplished Nashville goalie also had trouble controlling pucks. A lot of it had to do with the relentless pressure from North America. He did manage to make a few big saves for the highlights including a nice kick out of a tricky Matthews low shot and then denied a rebound point blank. He played all 60 minutes stopping 39 of 43.
How dangerous was North America? All 18 skaters registered a shot paced by Matthews’ five. For someone who just celebrated his 19th birthday the day before, he didn’t show any nerves and just played. The Leafs have a bright future ahead which also includes former number one picks Mitch Marner and William Nylander plus Kasperi Kapanen, who came over in the deal with Pittsburgh for Phil Kessel.
Finland couldn’t deny Gaudreau from scoring a legit goal in the second. He was able to brilliantly redirect a Colton Parayko point shot past Rinne for a 2-0 lead. Larkin set the play up. The roof caved in when a Gostisbehere rush led to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and then Drouin finishing off a loose scramble.
Finally, MacKinnon got inside position on Olli Maatta to rebound home a Parayko shot which made it 4-zip at 14:37. The crowd was going bananas. The best young Canadians and Americans dominated a proven Finnish team that featured Mikko Koivu, Jussi Jokinen, Valterri Filppula, Sami Vatanen along with young stars Aleksander Barkov, Jori Lehtera and Joonas Donskoi.
By the time Filppula tallied for Finland from Jokinen and Maple Leaf Leo Komarov, it was too little, too late. The damage had been done. They’ll next play bitter nemesis Sweden on Tuesday with in all likelihood, Henrik Lundqvist back.
As for North America, the young guns will get tested by Russia in a back-to-back Monday night in what basically is their home barn when Canada isn’t playing. If they succeed, they can put themselves in position to potentially see Canada in the knockout stage. The game is at 8 PM on ESPN. Don’t miss it.