By Sean Hartnett
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Catch them if you can.
The players that make up the Team North America roster at the upcoming World Cup of Hockey are speedy and possess quick-strike ability. This group of highly skilled America and Canadian Under-23 young guns has a very good chance of upsetting traditional contenders once the tournament gets underway this weekend in Toronto.
Over the course of two exhibition games, Team North America dominated Team Europe by a combined score of 11-4. Highly skilled Johnny Gaudreau, Auston Matthews and Shane Larkin made veteran European stars look flatfooted.
There were moments when 39-year-old Zdeno Chara appeared incapable of keeping up with the pace. In the second exhibition, European defenseman Luca Sbisa was abused by Gaudreau on the outside and was undressed when the elusive winger cut inside. Gaudreau made it look easy and beat goaltender Jaroslav Halak through the five-hole. Meanwhile, Matthews dangled and slalomed past two or three defenders with ease on multiple occasions.
Team North America plays with a non-stop motor. Its plan is to get in the face of opponents, force turnovers and get out on the attack quickly. A top line of Gaudreau and Jack Eichel on the wings, centered by last season’s 1.07 points-per-game rookie Connor McDavid leads the way. Their jet-like speed and ability to move the puck quickly and efficiently could make the line one of the most dangerous attacking trios at the tournament.
A second line of Jonathan Drouin, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nathan MacKinnon also has the ability to strike fear into opponents. Nugent-Hopkins and Drouin have looked incredible on the power play. Drouin offers unpredictable creativity and Nugent-Hopkins compliments his game well with the way he controls the puck with poise and playmaking acumen. MacKinnon chipped in two goals (including a successful penalty shot) in the first exhibition game against Europe.
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad is constantly getting in good shooting positions and scored two goals in the first period of the second game. Shayne Gostisbehere excels at starting the rush and is an all-out danger man on the power play. Colton Parayko, who stands an imposing 6-foot-6, is more than a big body. He is very mobile and is gifted with the puck. Morgan Rielly possesses tremendous instincts on the attack and can operate as a fourth forward.
Backed by John Gibson, who had a .920 save percentage during the 2015-16 NHL season for the Anaheim Ducks, and Matt Murray, who won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Todd McLellan has a tough choice deciding who will get the starting goalie nod. That said, it’s hard not to want to ride the wave of Murray’s non-stop success. He pulled off a 23-save gem in North America’s 4-0 first pre-tournament win over Europe.
The biggest question facing this team is its ability to protect leads. Up 5-1 at the first intermission of the second game against Europe, the North Americans began to show signs of sloppiness and failed to tighten up defensively. This allowed Europe to storm back and cut the deficit to 7-4 before the final horn sounded.
But there isn’t any added pressure of carrying the expectations of a nation. Team North America can fly under the radar by simply showing up and playing its best hockey. Collectively, this is the fastest team in the tournament and is blessed with skill up front and on the back end. It could play the spoiler.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey