The Biggest Surprises at the World Cup of Hockey so Far

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2016

The Biggest Surprises at the World Cup of Hockey so Far

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    Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

    The round-robin portion of the World Cup of Hockey is nearly in the books. With one day of action remaining, three of four semifinalists have been determined—we're just waiting to see whether Russia can beat winless Finland on Thursday to punch its ticket to the semifinals.

    If the Russians lose, Team North America will advance. The 23-and-under team has been the fan favorite of the tournament thanks to the players' prodigious speed, skill and swashbuckling determination to push the play.

    Is the young guns' success a surprise? The signs were there. Any fan who has watched Johnny Gaudreau, Connor McDavid or Nathan MacKinnon in their day jobs was already well aware of the deep natural talent those players possess.

    Here's a look at the moments from the tournament so far that have made heads turn and jaws drop.

The Quality of Play Is Off the Charts

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Despite the NHL's best efforts to build excitement leading up to the World Cup event, hockey fans seemed largely disinterested in the proceedings. Many players didn't seem too keen to be involved, either.

    In the days leading up to the opening of the World Cup training camps, big names who withdrew from their teams because of injury issues included Duncan Keith, Jamie Benn and Jeff Carter of Canada, Ryan Callahan of Team USA, Henrik Zetterberg of Team Sweden, Sean Monahan of Team North America and David Krejci, Radko Gudas and Tomas Hertl of the Czech Republic, according to the Canadian Press (via CBC Sports).

    But Team Canada and Team USA defied expectations when they kicked off pretournament action with an emotional contest in Columbus, and fans have continued to be treated to entertaining, high-intensity hockey.

    The Stanley Cup is an awe-inspiring trophy, and much is made of players' drive for the opportunity to hoist it over their heads and bring it to their hometowns when they win. The World Cup of Hockey trophy doesn't inspire such reverence, but that doesn't seem to matter.

    Whether they're suiting up for their countries or for Team Europe or Team North America, the players who did commit to the tournament have put on their game faces and are fighting just as hard as if a Stanley Cup or an Olympic gold medal was on the line.

    Fans have been treated to good hockey that has, at times, been off-the-charts great. And the final rounds are still to come.

Team Europe Shuts Out Team USA

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Day 1. The deck is shuffled.

    Anyone who thought they'd be seeing Team Canada play Team USA in the tournament's best-of-three final got an immediate shock when the Americans were shut out by the squad of All Stars from Europe's lower-ranked hockey nations.

    Though Team Europe had looked overwhelmed trying to keep up with the kids from Team North America during pretournament action, Anze Kopitar and company easily handled the gritty veteran squad from Team USA.

    The trends continued as the tournament went along. Team USA suffered a quick elimination from semifinal contention after its 4-2 loss to Canada on Tuesday, while Europe finished round-robin action with a 2-1 record and a ticket to the semifinal thanks to a second-place finish in Group A.

    Team Europe's success started in net, where Jaroslav Halak of Slovakia came back from an injury that had sidelined him since early March. Halak shut out the United States, then allowed just two goals against the Czech Republic in his team's second game. He gave up four against Team Canada, but by then, his team's semifinal berth was already assured.

    As for the Americans, plenty of questions about their roster's construction mean their group-stage elimination can't come as too much of a surprise. Still, even the doubters must have raised an eyebrow at just how little fight Team USA showed.

    The Americans' best game was the raucous 4-2 win over Team Canada in Columbus on the second day of pretournament action. As it turned out, that was much ado about nothing.

Carey Price Returns to Form

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Carey Price is back to his usual dominant, unflappable self. It doesn't seem especially surprising that Price has been the best goalie in the tournament so far. NHL.com reported that Price leads all goaltenders with a save percentage of .968 after stopping 61 of 63 shots in two games.

    But plenty of questions surrounded Price in the weeks and months leading up to the tournament thanks to an injury that had kept him off the ice since November of 2015. The Montreal Canadiens stopper looked a little shaky in his pretournament debut, giving up three goals to Team USA, but he opened the competition with a shutout against the Czech Republic. He was then solid in Canada's 4-2 round-robin win over the U.S.

    Habs fans are breathing a sigh of relief that their team's MVP should once again be at the top of his game when he starts the NHL season.

Jacob Markstrom Helps Sweden Finish 1st in Group B

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    Bruce Bennett/Associated Press

    Henrik Lundqvist wasn't great for Team Sweden in pretournament action. He allowed eight goals on just 36 shots in 107 minutes of game action during his two starts against Finland and Team Europe.

    Still, it was surprising to hear Lundqvist wouldn't start Sweden's first round-robin game. He had been taken ill on the morning of Sunday's contest against Russia and Jacob Markstrom replaced him in net.

    With limited preparation time, Markstrom stepped in and kept the Russians off the scoresheet for 59 minutes and 27 seconds, allowing the Swedes to escape with a 2-1 win.

    In a three-game group stage, the two points the Swedes picked up without their starting netminder were crucial in helping them become the first team from Group B to clinch a semifinal berth. Meanwhile, Lundqvist was sharp in a 36-save shutout performance against Finland on Tuesday.

    In Sweden's final game, King Henrik did what was necessary—making 45 saves on a hungry North American team and holding the fort long enough for his team to get the point it needed to advance.

Team Finland Fails to Spark

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    For a small nation with a population of just under 5.5 million, Finland has excelled on the international hockey scene for the better part of 2016.

    The strong showing began with a gold-medal win at the World Junior Championship in January. That was followed up by another gold at the U18 World Championship. Then came a silver medal at the World Championship in Russia, with the Finns' only loss of the tournament coming against Canada in the gold-medal game.

    The successes came at different levels, but the trend was looking undeniable: Finland was dominating, and the other countries were just along for the ride.

    Not so at World Cup. The Finns were overwhelmed by Team North America by a score of 4-1 in their first game and got shut out by Sweden 2-0 on Tuesday, ending their chances of advancing to the semifinal.

    The offense vanished, with Valtteri Filppula picking up the squad's only goal of the first two games during garbage time against North America.

    Meanwhile, Pekka Rinne failed to play up to his usual standard in net. He gave up five goals in two games of pretournament action before surrendering four against the North Americans, which led to Tuukka Rask getting the nod in Game 2 against the Swedes.

    Rinne also melted down toward the end of his playoff run with the Nashville Predators last spring, allowing three goals or more in his team's last four games before elimination by the San Jose Sharks. 

    The runner-up for the Vezina Trophy just one season ago in 2014-15, the 33-year-old Rinne's best days may be behind him. With no obvious heirs on the horizon, the golden era of goaltending supremacy for the Finns may be coming to an end.

Team Russia Mounts Explosive Comeback Against Team North America

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    At the opposite end of the spectrum, Russia has struggled internationally, especially at the senior men's level.

    The biggest disappointment was their quarterfinal loss to Finland in 2014 at the Olympics in Sochi. One year later, they got blown out 6-1 by Canada in the gold-medal game at the 2015 World Championship. In 2016, they lost to the Finns in the World Championship semifinal on home ice in Moscow.

    Russia's last gold medal at the World Championship came in 2012, and the team's only appearance in an Olympic final since NHL players started competing came in Nagano back in 1998, when Russia lost to the Czech Republic.

    So for the Russians, it's a good sign they'll have a chance to reach the World Cup semifinal with a win over Finland in their final round-robin game on Thursday. The opportunity to advance was built off a four-goal second period against Team North America on Monday, when Russia got the young stars back on their heels and took control of the game during a six-minute span.

    The Russians' ability to rattle North American puts them in a class of their own in the World Cup. On Thursday, they'll get a chance to use that as a springboard to the next round.

           

    What has surprised you most about the World Cup of Hockey? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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