TORONTO -- Most people thought that culling together players from eight different nations to comprise Team Europe would turn out to be a sideshow. Many believed that the patchwork squad would become the laughingstock of the World Cup of Hockey.
That most definitely has not been the case, and now Team Europe has a chance to eliminate one of the top contenders to win this tournament when it faces Team Sweden in the semifinals on Sunday at Air Canada Centre (1 p.m. ET on ESPN and the ESPN app). Team Europe finished the round-robin portion of the tournament with a 2-1 record, including victories over Team USA and the Czech Republic, before losing to Canada.
The Europeans' 3-0 win over the U.S. in the opener for both teams stunned everyone in the hockey world and jump-started Europe's run to the semifinals. Prior to this best-on-best tournament, no one knew what to expect from Team Europe, but it's evident this team has come together both on and off the ice and is motivated to reach the finals. In its final preseason game, Team Europe trounced Sweden 6-2 and scored five goals on 22 shots against Swedish goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Now that the Europeans believe in themselves, they'll be even tougher to eliminate. Coach Ralph Krueger has pushed all the right buttons and Team Europe is poised to win. Sweden (2-0-1) is still considered a strong favorite, however. The Swedes defeated Russia and Finland, but dropped a 4-3 overtime decision to Team North America.
Sweden: Without a doubt, Lundqvist has been Sweden's best player. Despite missing the first game of this tournament against Russia because of the flu, he has been outstanding the past two games and has proven why he should still be considered a world-class goalie. He has made a total of 81 saves on 85 shots the past two games, and will need to continue to stand on his head against Team Europe if Sweden is to advance to the finals. This tournament is likely the last time Lundqvist, 34, will represent his country in international competition. He's proud of his international success and wants to end it with a World Cup of Hockey championship.
Europe: It's tough to single out one player on this roster. The reason this team reached the semifinals is because it believes in the team concept. In order for Europe to advance, forward Mats Zuccarello needs to produce. He has one goal and two assists for three points in three games, but Europe needs more from him and his line.
Matchup to watch
Sweden's third line of Carl Hagelin, Marcus Kruger and Jakob Silfverberg has been a solid, shutdown unit in this tournament. This threesome has used its speed and forechecking ability, including a little bit of grit, to slow down the opposition's top lines. That will likely be the case again against Team Europe. Expect that line to match up against Europe's top unit of Marian Hossa, Anze Kopitar and Tomas Tatar.
We saw how Hagelin, Kruger and Silfverberg were able to neutralize Team North America's top line, including Connor McDavid, after the young squad jumped out to an early lead. Sweden needs to play a more patient game than it did against Team North America. Once the Swedes settled things down and controlled the play, they held the attack for the final two periods of regulation before the loss in OT. Sweden needs to control the puck and not turn it over, which is something the team has done a few times in this tournament. Also, special teams will become a big factor in this game. Sweden uncharacteristically went 0-for-5 on the power play against Team North America. Meanwhile, Europe is 11-for-12 on the penalty kill in this tournament.
Prior to the start of this tournament, many people, including me, picked Sweden to win it all. I still believe Sweden's depth, ability to score, overall team defense and the fact that Lundqvist has been solid will equal a win over Team Europe and set up a three-game championship series against the winner of the Canada-Russia semifinal. I believe it will be a low-scoring game, but that Lundqvist will stand on his head once again. Sweden wins 2-0.