(Burns photo - credit Calgary Sun / Halak photo credit NHL.com & WCH2016.com)
If someone had said at the beginning of this tournament that Canada and Europe’s final match of round robin play against each other would decide first overall in Pool A, most hockey fans would have met that declaration with a puzzled expression. Due to a unspectacular (but expected) showing by the Czech Republic, and a dumpster-fire performance by Team USA (that lead one sled hockey player from the national team to tweet that he was thankful for not having legs after watching that), the first place deciding match-up between the Canadians and Europeans is happening tonight. The winner gets the second place finisher in Pool B, while the loser gets the winner from Pool B.
On paper, Canada should continue their steamrolling of teams in this tournament. They opened up the World Cup of Hockey by pummeling the Czech Republic 6-0, and eliminated Team USA from advancing last night in a 4-2 victory that wasn’t as close as the score indicates. They’ve been the heavy favorite from when the rosters were announced, and have performed up to expectations so far. Carey Price has looked sharp in net (he’ll get today’s game off and Corey Crawford will start in his place), Brent Burns has been a dominant force on the blueline, and the rest of the star-studded cast has run like a well-oiled machine. There was no reason to doubt this team coming in to the tournament, and there’s no reason to start questioning them now.
If you’re Team Europe, you do have a couple of minor advantages heading in to this game. Canada is coming off a back-to-back. For all of that talk of how Team USA was going to physically impose their will on to teams to win (which failed horribly), they did register 38 hits against the Canadians last night. If there ever was a right time to play Crosby & Company, this is it. Europe can also play this game without any added pressure. Sure, they want to win the game and win the pool after most had them finishing at the bottom of the standings, but they don’t have to win to advance. They can focus on playing smart, efficient hockey and don’t have to force any chances because they’re in must-win mode. Jaroslav Halak has played very well between the pipes for the European Squad (including a 35 save-shutout to open the tournament against Team USA) and will get the nod again. Europe had no back-to-back games in this tournament, so they should be fresh. If there is something Europe wants to focus on improving, converting on the power play (which is currently 0 for 10) would be helpful.
The semi-final match-up possibilities will become clearer after today’s Sweden-North America game. A Sweden win locks in first place in Pool B (and a game against the loser of Canada-Europe). A North America win opens up a bunch of possibilities.