TORONTO -- The last team standing in the way of juggernaut Canada winning the World Cup of Hockey was a figment of the NHL's imagination.
Oh, but they're for real, all right.
Team Europe shockingly faces Canada in the best-of-three final after upsetting Sweden in the semifinals.
Flash back to Sept. 11, when after four periods of pretournament play, Europe was down 9-1 to the North American kids. Can you possibly imagine the reaction of the European players in that very moment had you told them they'd be in the World Cup finals two weeks later?
"It was a turning point for our group," star defenseman Roman Josi of the Nashville Predators said after Europe's dramatic, 3-2 OT win over Sweden. "[W]e just told ourselves, we either try to come together and play as a group or pack it in now. We showed a lot of character. I think we played really good the rest of the pretournament period and we carried that into the tournament."
Canada beat Europe 4-1 in round-robin play, so it has an idea about the new outfit.
"You put all those countries together, there's lots of good players there," Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock said immediately after Sunday's 3-2 overtime win by Europe over Sweden in the second semifinal. "I like their back end, I like the goaltending, I think they've done a real good job through the middle of the rink with their team. They've got a good-looking team. That's why you play these games. All the experts can predict what they want, but you got to play the games and decide."
Made up of veteran players from eight countries, Europe plays a very patient game and limits its mistakes. The team is no pushover.
"They are a great story," said Canada GM Doug Armstrong, "Shame on us if we don't take them seriously for what they've done to this point."
Let's not kid ourselves here, Europe will still be massive underdogs in the World Cup finals. Since Sweden won Olympic gold at Torino in 2006, Team Canada has gone into cruise control, winning gold at Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014 while carrying a 14-game win streak in best-on-best hockey heading into the best-of-three, World Cup of Hockey championship finals.
Game 1 goes Tuesday night here at Air Canada Centre (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
This is a powerhouse Canadian side that has outscored the opposition 19-6 in four tournament games and trailed for only 2:41 in total. But Europe has nothing to lose, right?
Europe: Europe's solid blue-line play leads to the crux of the narrative for this final as Canada's four-line forward attack has left the opposition in shambles with its forecheck and puck pressure. If Europe's veteran blue-line corps led by Josi and Zdena Chara can swiftly navigate out of their zone without coughing up the puck constantly like Russia and Team USA did against Canada, then that's a major plus toward Europe trying to produce the upset.
Up front, Anze Kopitar must take on either Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews and play the hockey of his life. Kopitar has been one of the top-five centers in the world while winning two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, but this is a monumental challenge for him.
Canada: Crosby is playing at a whole other level from the rest of the tournament, the front-runner for tournament MVP honors. Just like his most recent playoffs when he led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Stanley Cup, Crosby's impact has been felt as much on the defensive side of the puck as his obvious offensive talents. His line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron has been out of this world from the get-go.
Ryan Getzlaf and John Tavares have been a pairing up front since Day 1 of camp and their chemistry has grown impressively; on a line with Steve Stamkos, they were awfully impressive in the semifinal win over Russia. And, as always, whenever Canada seems to get into a bit of a lull, Toews does the heavy lifting. His engine never stops.
Matchup to watch
Ralph Krueger versus Mike Babcock. For my money, these are the best two coaches in the tournament. No surprise there with Babcock, the NHL's highest-paid coach while leading the Toronto Maple Leafs and Canada to back-to-back Olympic gold medals. Once again, he's sold a very specific game plan to his star-studded squad and gotten a complete buy-in from every single player. That's not easy. Krueger, a longtime former Swiss national team head coach, has a brilliant hockey mind. He was part of Babcock's staff in Sochi, helping Canada adjust to the bigger ice, so there are no secrets between them.
"I've known Ralph since '04 world championships," Babcock said. "Ralph and I are good friends. We talk a lot. He's a very, very intelligent person. He was a good head coach in the National Hockey League. He's been around a long time, a good coach in Europe. ... He has these guys believing and prepared and in the finals. From where they were at one point when they got lit up a couple of times early to now where they are, he's done a heck of a job."
Having been with Team Canada since camp opened Sept. 5, and watching this team bring its total game to a whole other level, even from the team that went a perfect 6-0-0 in Sochi, I just can't see how Canada will lose a period, let alone the series. Canada is absolutely humming on all levels.
Team Canada will win each game by at least two goals and sweep the series 2-0.