Written by: Tanner Henkel– Staff Writing Intern (@)
With an overtime win against Sweden, Team Europe earned their right to play for the World Cup of Hockey, but do they stand a chance against a stacked Canadian team?
Canada’s balanced offensive attack, solid defensive core and steady goaltending has them looking bullet proof heading into the finals. The only time Canada has trailed in the tournament was a span of two minutes and forty-one seconds in the semifinal against Russia, a game in which Canada controlled the play and went on to win 5-3. They’ve outscored opponents 19-6 overall, and statistically they boast and the best goalie and the top five scorers in the tournament.
This type of dominance is expected from a team loaded with NHL studs, but is Canada invincible or can the Europeans upset?
The last time Canada lost in best on best competition was at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Canada has since rattled off 14 straight wins, but there have been some close calls. An overtime win in the gold medal game against the Americans in Vancouver, an overtime win against Finland at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, and most interestingly a narrow 2-1 escape against Latvia in those same Sochi Olympics.
Canada threw everything at Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis but were still tied with the Latvians 1-1 going into the third. Gudlevskis made save after save until finally Shea Weber scored in the dying minutes of the third period to send Canada to the semifinals and eventually the gold medal.
This European team is more talented than the 2014 Latvian team, but if Europe is to contend with Canada they should implore a similar game plan. Outmatched up front, on defense and in goal Europe doesn’t have the same guns as Canada. They are going to have to minimize the Canadian attack while looking to take advantage of any and all offensive chances that comes their way. If they do that it could make for an upset.
To execute this game plan Europe will need a world-class performance from New York Islanders net minder Jaroslav Halak. A big reason the Euros are in the finals is because of Halak’s 1.96 goals against average, and a .948 save percentage throughout the tournament, second only to Canada’s Carey Price and his 1.67 GAA and .950 save percentage.
Halak has faced more shots than any other goalie in the tournament (150), and that’s not going to change. Canada is a team of shooters, but the guys in front of Halak can help make his job easier by limiting Canada’s looks. And that will be a huge part of Europe’s success.
The biggest guy in front of Halak is 39-year-old defenseman Zdeno Chara. Chara isn’t the same player he was when he took home the Norris Trophy in 2008, but he used his experience, size, and leadership to guide a European team that would be lost without his 20 minutes a game on the backend. At 6’9 250 pounds Chara’s size can give the Europeans favorable mismatches against the Canadians. And Chara will need to use that size if he’s tasked to shut down Canadian forward and Bruins teammate Brad Marchand, along with tournament’s leading scorer Sidney Crosby.
If Europe intends to shut down the Canadian forwards, they will need more than just Chara and Halak. Up front they’ll be lead by their captain and 2016 Selke trophy winner Anze Kopitar. Along with Kopitar the Europeans have a strong group of defensive minded forwards in Jannik Hansen, Frans Nielsen and Mats Zuccarello. All three can play a shut down role, and add offense.
While defense is vital to Europe’s success, they will need offense from somewhere outside of Kopitar. Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar who scored twice against Sweden including the overtime winner, hasn’t provided much punch offensively in the tournament. Europe will need more offense against Canada.
Europe needs an offensive game breaker, and that could come in the form of German born forward Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl put up 51 points as a rookie in Edmonton last season, and showed his dominance with a pre tournament hat trick against Sweden but has yet to break out in the tournament. If Draisaitl recaptures that offensive magic he could be the difference maker Europe needs against Canada.
If everything goes right for the Europeans; Draisaitl turns into the power forward the Oilers drafted third overall in 2014, Halak stands on his head, Chara returns to form as a potential Norris candidate, and the European forwards shut down Canada while chipping in timely goals, that still might not be enough. Canada is too deep, too talented, and too discipline to be beaten twice in a row on home ice.