2016 World Cup of Hockey: “Fast, speed, skilled” Team North America dominates Finland in 4-1 victory

Team North America's Johnny Gaudreau celebrates his goal with teammates during a 4-1 win over Finland on Sunday at the World Cup of Hockey. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Team North America’s Johnny Gaudreau celebrates his goal with teammates during a 4-1 win over Finland on Sunday at the World Cup of Hockey. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

By Hunter Crowther (@HunterCrowther

TORONTO — The conversation leading up to Team North America’s round robin opener against Finland was if they had the mental maturity to take on the top hockey nations in the world.

But after a dominating performance from all four lines and a firm presence in goal, the under-23 squad cruised to a 4-1 victory at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont. Sunday night.

It was an impressive performance for a team that many hockey observers dismissed from its early origins, mostly for lack of experience and, of course, not existing before this tournament. Not only did the Connor McDavid-led squad outshoot Finland 43-25, but dominated even more possession wise, racking up 70 per cent in even strength corsi, according to Hockey Stats.

Team North America finished with 70 per cent possession in even strength corsi in their 4-1 victory against Finland. (Chart courtesy of Hockey Stats)

Team North America finished with 70 per cent possession in even strength corsi in their 4-1 victory against Finland. (Chart courtesy of Hockey Stats)

“We’re here to play,” said forward Johnny Gaudreau, who finished the night with a goal after tipping a Colton Paraynko point shot in the 2nd period. “I think we’re a fast, speed, skilled team and hopefully we can keep proving people we belong here.”

Team North America forward Johnny Gaudreau answers questions in a scrum after a 4-1 victory over Team Finland at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont. on Sept. 19, 2016. (Mitch Cole / The Hockey Guys)

Team North America forward Johnny Gaudreau answers questions in a scrum after a 4-1 victory over Team Finland at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont. on Sept. 18, 2016. (Mitch Cole / The Hockey Guys)

The game got more physical as Team North America’s grip got tighter. The pesky Finns tried to get under the skin of North America’s hockey darlings, taking opportunities to slash an ankle or rub a glove in their face. The All-Millennials reacted by holding their ground in front of netminder Matt Murray, not throwing the extra glove punch over a linesman’s sprawled arms.

“That’s hockey,” said forward Auston Matthews, the 2016 first overall pick for the Toronto Maple Leafs. “They were down and wanted to gain momentum, we just had to focus on our game and not let it affect us too much.”

“It’s definitely playoff-style hockey,” said goaltender Matt Murray, who made 24 saves on 25 shots, largely looking like the man who backstopped the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup last June. “Guys are going hard to the net…that’s how the majority of goals are scored in the NHL, shots through traffic and rebounds.

“I thought our whole team did a good job of boxing out, letting me see the puck and make my job easy.”

Forward Jack Eichel opened the scoring on the power play after Matthews carried the puck into the opposing zone, driving towards the goal and getting a shot that Finnish netminder Pekka Rinne stopped. Eichel whacked at the loose puck, squeaking it between Rinne’s legs and giving North America a 1-0 lead.

With two minutes to go in the first, North America was buzzing around the Finnish crease while the puck sat on the goal line and McDavid tried poking it in. Rinne was backed into the blue paint after under-23 forward Mark Scheifele pushed Finnish centre Aleksander Barkov into him, inadvertently pushing the puck into the net and seemingly giving the kids a two-goal lead.

However, officials reviewed the call waived off the goal, keeping it 1-0 at the end of one.

Minutes after Gaudreau’s tip made it 2-0, Jonathan Drouin tapped in a loose puck that was left of Rinne, making it 3-0.

Then, another Parayko shot from the point was stopped by Rinne, but 2013 1st overall pick Nathan MacKinnon went backhand-to-forehand before finishing the play and giving Team North America a 4-0 lead at the end of two periods.

Team North America captain Connor McDavid takes questions from reporters following a 4-1 win over Finland at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont. on Sept. 18, 2016.

Team North America captain Connor McDavid takes questions from reporters following a 4-1 win over Finland at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont. on Sept. 18, 2016. (Hunter Crowther / The Hockey Guys)

The final 20 minutes was mostly lethargic, both teams timidly battling for the puck and running the clock out.

Finnish forward Valtteri Filppula spoiled Murray’s shutout at the 15:53 mark after a Leo Komarov dump-and-chase resulted in a hard forecheck on Parayko, then Jussi Jokinen feeding the loose puck to a wide-open Filppula out front.

In the post-game press conference, Finnish head coach Lauri Marjamaki says he thought Rinne, who made 39 saves on 43 shots, was “our best player tonight,” but a decision on who starts Tuesday vs Sweden had not been made.

Team North America gets right back on the ice Monday night when they face Russia, who lost 2-1 to the Swedes early Sunday.

 

Follow @HunterCrowther on Twitter for updates throughout the tournament. #WCH2016

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