Wednesday September 28th, 2016

TORONTO — The luxurious existence of being Team Canada means awaking after a half-hour snooze with unblemished skin, perfectly coiffed hair and little to no eye gunk. It means allowing two scoring chances and committing one penalty on the opening shift, yet still leaving Tuesday one victory away from snatching the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. It means having the globe’s best goalie as a safety valve, and its best player as a sparkplug. It means getting the decisive goal from its second-line right-winger, who’d previously been held scoreless this tournament, and having that person be Steven Stamkos.

It means finally accepting the truth that, despite winning by double digits for the fifth time in five games at Air Canada Centre, as coach Mike Babcock put it, “You’d like things to be perfect every night, but it’s just not real.”

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So, then, what passes for harsh reality for these international juggernauts: Behind Brad Marchand’s first-period atonement, Stamkos’s long-awaited layup and Patrice Bergeron’s clincher midway through the final frame, the Canadians beat Team Europe 3–1 in the best-of-three opener. They struck 38 shots on goal at Jaroslav Halak, only their second time finishing below 40 in Toronto, and needed every one of Carey Price’s 32 saves. “We bent today, but we didn’t break,” forward Ryan Getzlaf said. “Not every team can do that, for sure.”

All of which leaves their opponents, the pan-continental hodgepodge of 30-somethings whose time together threatens to expire Thursday, in a tricky spot. On the one hand, Team Europe left feeling plenty confident, having stomped from the starting blocks with four shots on goal in the first 21 seconds before Marchand’s cross-check put them on the power play. “We were right there, and we played well,” Danish center Frans Nielsen said. “At the same time, this sure gave the group a lot of confidence. I think we have the feeling in there that this is far from over.”

On the other hand, the margin for error against Canada remains skate-blade thin. Twelve seconds after Marchand left the penalty box, Bergeron found him on a backdoor feed after Sidney Crosby’s seam pass sprung him free. Later that period, when defenseman Zdeno Chara tried squeezing past Getzlaf in the neutral zone, a swift stick-check from the Anaheim captain turned into an odd-man rush and Stamkos’s game-winner. Then came Crosby in the third, shaking off defenseman Mark Streit behind the European net, dancing around an official and finding Bergeron with a tape-to-tape backhand pass.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP

“I think if you cut the goals out of the videos, there's an even-chance opportunity here for us with Canada, which we're proud of that effort, and the creation of it,” Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger said. “But we're very frustrated, of course, with what and how we gave up the goals we did. Just a little bit too much risk at the wrong times and the power of Canada is that, to take opportunities and jam them into the net.”

The opposite bench shared in such irritation, but for different reasons. Price was excellent, allowing only Tomas Tatar’s third goal in two games when a blocked attempt bounced straight to his stick, but was relied upon more than in round-robin play. In his postgame presser, Babcock criticized his team’s zone exits (“went back and forth”), entries (“turned the puck over”) and communication (“didn’t talk to one another”). Only in the final minute of the middle period, while killing Marchand’s second minor, did Canada finally assume the shots on goal lead.

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“You know what you’ve got to do,” Canadian defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “Sometimes you just can’t grab it. It’s tough to explain, but sometimes things just don’t go your way. We’ve played—if not perfect—pretty well throughout this whole tournament, so we knew it was a matter of time before that switch flipped and we were able to get to our game.”

Sounds pretty nice, this inevitable success. Almost luxurious.

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