Nobody predicted they would get this far. Actually, some didn’t even give them a chance to win a game, but Team Europe has defied the odds and will play in the World Cup of Hockey Final.
The Europeans shocked the hockey world once again in the semifinals, defeating Team Sweden in overtime Sunday 3-2. Europe will face Team Canada in the best-of-three final which will begin Tuesday at 8 pm.
Much was made of how each team constructed its roster prior to the tournament. For the United States, grit was a major factor, but for most other squads, speed and skill were two popular attributes coaches were hoping to get.
Europe general manager Miroslav Satan and coach Ralph Krueger made it no secret after Sunday’s victory that experience was what they wanted for their roster.
“We identified 50 players we had to draw from and experience was the big factor,” said Satan according to NHL.com. “We wanted to have an older team that had played a lot of games in the NHL and in international tournaments. It explains to a large degree what we’ve done here.
“When we had players who were close in the last choices, we went with players with experience, like Mark Streit. We have a team with an average age over 30. That was the design … the plan. A young team that starts like we did against North America [in the pre-tournament games] might panic, maybe lose faith. But these players knew what they had to do.”
That strategy wasn’t initially popular, especially with North America providing some of the most anticipated games of the tournament, but Europe will have the last laugh, as only two victories stand between them and one of the most improbable hockey tournament victories ever.
Europe’s team experience was at its best in the team’s semifinal victory over Sweden. European captain Anze Kopitar and forward Marian Gaborik have played a combined 159 NHL playoff games and have won two Stanley Cups together with the Los Angeles Kings.
The two combined to score three points, including Europe’s first goal (Gaborik from Christian Enrhoff and Kopitar) to tie the game before the second intermission.
If readers thought Kopitar and Gaborik had a lot of NHL postseason experience, that’s nothing compared to the milage on the legs of wing Marian Hossa and defenseman Zdeno Chara. Hossa didn’t have a point Sunday, but he has played in 201 playoff games and won three Stanley Cups. Despite not scoring, Hossa was everywhere in the semifinal matchup, playing his best game of the tournament.
Chara, who is largely responsible for Europe’s strong defense, has played 141 NHL playoff games. He has a goal, an assist and is plus-3 in the tournament.
With that kind of experience, no matter how lopsided the play might be because the other team is faster and more skilled, Team Europe just keeps grinding. They fell behind 1-0 to Sweden only to storm back and take the lead 12 seconds into the third period. Even after relinquishing the lead late in the third, Team Europe didn’t panic and won in overtime.
One of the younger European players, Tomas Tatar, was the hero Sunday, scoring the team’s final two goals, including the game-winner in overtime. Tatar is only 25, but he also has playoff experience, having played in the first round each of the last three seasons with Detroit. Two years ago against Tampa Bay, Tatar scored a pair of goals in Game 6 of the first round.
Speaking of flashes from the past, goaltender Jaroslav Halak looks like it’s 2010 all over again. In the postseason that spring, he led the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadians to the Eastern Conference Finals. On Sunday, Halak turned aside 37-of-39 shots to win his third game of the tournament. He owns a 0.947 save percentage since round robin play began.
This group may have never played together before this tournament, but high-intensity, playoff-style hockey is nothing new to this group of players.