It almost happened.
After looking thoroughly untested through three preliminary games and five meaningful World Cup of Hockey contests, Team Canada nearly saw their flaws exposed on the biggest stage.
For 57 minutes, Team Europe looked to be the better of the two clubs as they duelled in what turned out to be the final match of the 2016 tournament. The narrative began to shift away from Canada proving to still be a class above the rest, and more toward Team Europe climbing the mountain – from the butt of World Cup jokes to unlikely contender.
Through two periods, Europe had outshot Canada 27 to 21. They were beating the Canadians handily in the faceoff circle, and stripping their world-class defensemen of the puck at every turn. But the most telling characteristic of Canada’s underwhelming play wasn’t necessarily found in the areas of the game in which Europe was quantifiably better. The red and white simply looked out of sorts.
The hometown team became mired in a giveaway frenzy, reverting far too often to no-look backhand passes that found their way to European sticks. There was a noticeable amount of disorganization present in Canada’s game. Team Europe executed well-crafted plays in unison, pouncing each time Canadian defenders joined the rush and trapping the remaining blue-liner in repeated odd-man rushes.
On the other end, Canada’s defenders looked far too hesitant carrying the puck in their own zone, holding on cautiously while the team’s elite forwards waited awkwardly in the neutral zone for passes that came seconds too late.
When the Canadian forwards did get their chances, the game continued to escape them. John Tavares passed up a gaping open net, wiring the puck off the post to keep his team off the scoreboard. Steven Stamkos found himself undetected flying into the offensive zone late, but comically whiffed on a key one-timer opportunity in the slot.
Suffice to say, it was an absolute mess for the club looking to take their victory lap.
But that didn’t matter at all. Because when the time came, the Canadian team did what they’ve done all tournament, connecting on a pair of exceptional scoring opportunities to get the Air Canada Centre crowd on their feet once again – and in doing so, naming themselves World Cup champions.
Netminder Carey Price held down the fort while his team stumbled in front of him, before Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand continued their run of heroism. Bergeron was the first to turn the tide of the seemingly lost championship effort, redirecting a point shot from Brent Burns to tie the game with just under three minutes remaining. With the clock winding down in the final minute, Marchand ended it, linking up with Jonathan Toews on a beautiful shorthanded tally to give Canada the lead.
Canada walks away from the tournament as World Cup champions, with all of the familiar faces getting their due praise. Sidney Crosby – the tournament’s scoring leader with 10 points in six games (and an assist on Bergeron’s crucial tying goal) – snagged MVP honors. Head coach Mike Babcock retained his status as international coaching hero. Toews added another reason for Blackhawks fans to tout his ability to rise to the occasion when it matters most, after coming up with a phenomenal shorthanded play to set up the game-winner.
But Canada was three minutes away from letting it all slip and seeing their questionable defensive choices take center stage heading into a pressure-filled Saturday night winner-take-all affair. The fact that they avoided that undesirable outcome affirms the value of simply having a different class of talent on their roster.
It seems an obvious distinction: if you have much better players, you’ll likely find much better results. But Canada’s game-winning effort pushed that truth to the absolute limit. They were thoroughly outplayed all game, in all three zones, and are sure to hear plenty of detractors highlighting the fact that they “didn’t deserve” to leave with a victory.
Such is the importance of elite talent. The value of that talent isn’t always a bolstering of the full 60-minute effort – in the sustained push to succeed within a specific system and through a varied set of circumstances. Sometimes it is simply the fact that, in the moments upon which the result of a game is truly dependent, elite talent can rise to the occasion without a moment’s notice in just a few exceptional displays.
It didn’t matter that Europe outplayed Canada all game long. A victory was always going to be a longshot, simply because of the sheer number of game-changing talents on the ice for Canada. Crosby, Toews, Tavares, Stamkos, Doughty, Getzlaf, Bergeron, etc. etc. Someone was going to take it upon themselves to carry the flag and run with it.
It’s precisely this point that makes Team Canada effectively unbeatable in the international arena. Undaunted by a slew of key injuries and nightmarish final game that had them falling all over themselves, the Canadians managed to make it look easy once again, flipping the script in a span of three minutes.
Even with this fairly inevitable result, Canada and Team Europe gave the World Cup the successful end it desperately needed.
A roster that initially seemed a disjointed hodgepodge of European stars finished as a rest-of-the-world all-star team that nearly took it all, while Canada – despite being named the overwhelming favourite months in advance – somehow found a way to play the underdog card, winning the championship only after clawing their way back from the brink of collapse.
A worthwhile drama, but one that ended just as everyone expected it to – No. 87, his helmet traded for championship cap, leading the victory laps at center ice for the second time in four months.