The 2016 World Cup of Hockey will get underway on Saturday, but all eight teams have already played a trio of exhibitions in advance.
From those tilts, a few key takeaways…
Canada and the U.S. don’t like each other
The two teams combined for 83 penalty minutes while splitting their opening exhibition games (though Canada did win 7-6 on aggregate. Just saying.)
Ryan Kesler was tossed from the opener for boarding Shea Weber, then got a rough ride from John Tavares and Joe Thornton in the rematch. There were plenty of big hits, face washes and post-whistle scrums, highly unusual for exhibition games but perfectly normal for what’s become a terrific grudge match.
“It’s a pretty good rivalry,” Team USA head coach John Tortorella said, per the Globe and Mail. “It kind of just lights itself up.”
Fans won’t have to wait long for the next installment. The U.S. and Canada face off again on Tuesday.
“They’re the fastest kids alive”
The biggest revelation of the exhibition campaign wasn’t the U.S.-Canada beef — that had been well established.
No, the biggest revelation was the speed and skill of Team North America, who burst onto the scene by crushing Team Europe by 4-0 and 7-4 scorelines in their opening games.
Everybody was raving about how good “TNA” was.
And that includes the players themselves.
“This team is the fastest I’ve ever seen,” said J.T. Miller.
“I don’t think there’s a more skilled team than ours,” said Nathan MacKinnon.
The 23-and-under squad was brought back to earth in the exhibition finale, however. Running up against a pair of hot netminders in Michal Neuvirth and Petr Mrazek, Team North America lost 3-2 to the Czechs and learned a valuable lesson in the process — a good offense can be neutralized.
“I think it was a real eye-opener for us for the way the tournament’s going to go,” Connor McDavid said, per Yahoo. “We’re not going to play every game 7-4 or 4-0, so it’s a good test for us.”
Speaking of McDavid, he went pointless through the three exhibition games. That’s a scary proposition for TNA opponents — the captain and arguably the team’s best player, McDavid is going to break out offensively at some point.
Some important guys got hurt
The biggest fear for all 30 NHL clubs heading into the World Cup was one (or more) of their players getting injured.
For a few unfortunate teams, it happened:
• Canada’s Tyler Seguin tried to play through an ankle injury, only to be dropped from the roster and replaced by Ryan O'Reilly. Though the decision to drop Seguin was made by Hockey Canada, one suspects the Dallas Stars — and in particular, GM Jim Nill — might’ve had a say, given Seguin missed nearly all of last year’s playoffs with an Achilles ailment.
• Sweden’s Rickard Rakell suffered an illness — believed to be in relation to a March appendectomy — that forced him out of the tournament. Rakell, who registered an assist in Sweden’s first exhibition game, was replaced by Patrik Berglund.
• Vladimir Sobotka, rumored to be re-joining the Blues in the fall, was hurt in the Czech Republic’s first exhibition against Russia. Though the Czechs kept Sobotka on the active roster, he didn’t play in the rematch against Russia or Wednesday’s win over Team North America.
• Chicago got a scare when Marian Hossa and Marcus Kruger were banged up in their first games for Team Europe and Team Sweden, respectively. Both remained with their clubs, though Kruger sat out an ugly 6-2 loss to the Europeans earlier this week.
Goaltending pictures came into focus
• Though Finland head coach Lauri Marjamaki wouldn’t confirm, it sure looks (and sounds) as though Pekka Rinne will get the nod ahead of Tuukka Rask. Rinne started the exhibition opener and closed things out as well, looking sharp along the way. Rask, meanwhile, struggled in his lone appearance, allowing five goals on 28 shots in a 6-3 loss to the Swedes on Saturday.
• Like his Finnish counterpart, Team Europe head coach Ralph Krueger wouldn’t anoint his starter — but, like Finland, Europe’s No. 1 seems obvious. Jaroslav Halak played the majority of exhibition minutes, and Krueger said “the writing was on the wall” as to who his starter would be. That would put Thomas Greiss in a backup role, after Greiss allowed four goals in just over 10 minutes in an ugly loss to Team North America.
• Based on Wednesday’s 3-2 OT loss to Canada, Russia will probably go with Sergei Bobrovsky as its starter. Bobrovsky was terrific against the Canadians, making 45 saves, and played the majority of minutes during the exhibition campaign. Semyon Varlamov got the second of a back-to-back against the Czechs, and Andrei Vasilevskiy didn’t play at all.
• Speaking of the Czechs, there’s some legitimate intrigue as to who’ll be the starter. Michal Neuvirth was fantastic throughout the exhibition campaign, especially in Wednesday’s win over North America, but Petr Mrazek has been strong as well. If we had to guess, it’ll be Neuvirth against Canada on Saturday, but assistant coach Vinny Prospal said the decision still hasn’t been made.
• Prior to the tournament, four starting spots appeared to be locked in: Carey Price for Canada, Henrik Lundqvist for Sweden, Jonathan Quick for the U.S. and Matt Murray for North America. Those four all remain locked. It is worth mentioning, though, that Lundqvist has looked shaky and his backup, Jacob Markstrom, looked pretty good in limited minutes.
More World Cup of Hockey:
Five early observations
After talking the talk, Laine ready to walk the walk