TORONTO – Is Team Europe the master of its own fate in the World Cup final? It's debatable.
On one hand, it's tough to dictate how you fare when you're up against the monolith that is Canada, a hockey power that, even by its lofty standards, may be in its most dominant stretch of all-time. Tuesday night's 3-1 victory marked Canada's 15th straight victory in best-on-best tournament play. In a way, Canada's uncharacteristically uneven effort is especially demoralizing for Europe given Canada seemed to flick a switch whenever it needed to. The Euros opened the game with an aggressive shift and a power play, and Canada countered with two goals off turnovers. The Euros peppered Carey Price with 23 shots in less than 30 minutes, then Canada didn't allow a shot for more than six minutes. It seemed Canada dictated how the game would go by deciding when it felt like playing.
On the other hand, Europe can look at Tuesday's result and say, sheesh, we were pretty close. We outplayed the Canucks for extended stretches. All three of their goals came off takeaways. Those are correctable mistakes. We had distinct territorial advantages for much of the game. Carey Price helped maintain Canada's lead. We weren't that far from forcing overtime.
Can you guess which stance Team Europe takes? Well, yeah, obviously.
“We definitely felt we had a chance out here tonight," center Frans Nielsen told reporters after the game. "It was a tough loss, but we can take a lot of good from it, too. Everyone in there really believes now that we can go out and win this next one and make it a one-game series.”
Anze Kopitar called Game 1 Europe's best game of the tournament. Nielsen said Canada's weakness, if it had one, was defensive play, and that Europe did a good job forcing Canada to defend. Coach Ralph Krueger suggested the opportunities were even "if you cut the goals out of the videos."
Wow. It sure feels like the Europeans are lying to themselves. But good on them. Faced with a seemingly unbeatable opponent, the choices are (a) accept that they have no hope and mail in their next effort or (b) choose to believe even if they have no business believing. Not only has Europe chosen the latter route, but the team is downright angry about Game 1, as if it deserved a victory as much as Canada did.
"We're proud of that effort, and the creation of it, but we're very frustrated, of course, with what and how we gave up the goals we did," Krueger said. "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.
"What we can take out of this is a lot of courage that we played a strong game, that we had a lot of opportunity that we didn't make enough out of. We could have tested Price a lot more with the chances we had, and some of them just died on our own sticks."
Kopitar pointed out that Europe dictated the pace for much of Game 1, and even though that might've been just because Canada sat back, the statement is true. He, like Krueger, said Canada's goals were the result of Europe's mistakes.
See a theme here? Krueger's troops aren't bowing down to Canada in admiration. It's not "we couldn't stop them" or "they're such a great team." It's "we made mistakes" and "we dictated play." The Euros are taking ownership, implying they have the ability to dictate what happens in Game 2 and beyond. Even though that probably isn't true – uh, it's Canada, you guys – it's a sign of good coaching that the Euros speak with such conviction.
That's all well and good, but they still weren't nearly good enough to beat Canada. What must they specifically do besides believe in themselves if they want to force Game 3? When I asked Krueger about that second period lull after they opened with 23 shots, he said Europe got hemmed in with some tired defensemen on long shifts, so they have to try and manage their minutes better going forward. He was pleased with the fact his team had so many takeaways and thinks his forwards' dogged forechecking will continue to create transition opportunities. The offense comes from conscientious defense.
“Ralph said from day 1 that the team with the best defense usually comes out on top of these kinds of tournaments," Nielsen said. "We’ve been focusing on a lot of that, being a frustrating team to play against and feeding off turnovers. We’ve got so many good players on the team and we’ve got speed, so when we get those turnovers we’re good enough to make teams pay.”
Now it's time to back up the talk. Team Europe still believes it has the talent and work ethic to beat Canada, but it'll have to find a way to solve Price if it does continue creating chances in transition. Otherwise, it'll be a short series.
And let's be honest. That's what we expect. Canada still looks like a team that can do what it wants out there. But bless the Europeans for refusing to accept that and keeping things interesting. They've proven us wrong time and again, so maybe they have one last miracle to unleash.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin