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Facing tall task against Canada, Team Europe deserves credit for making Cup final

One gimmick unit in the World Cup became the talk of the hockey world but went home before fans were ready to say good-bye. The other just went about its job silently, almost in anonymity, but is still playing.

And while Team North America has become a happy footnote to the history of this tournament, Team Europe actually has a chance to win the whole thing.

OK, perhaps only a small chance. Team Europe sure seems like it will be cannon fodder for the Team Canada juggernaut when the best-of-three final opens Tuesday night at 8 in Toronto's Air Canada Centre (ESPN).

But that shouldn't diminish its accomplishment of merely getting to the final. Not one iota.

The tossed-together group of players from eight European nations sent the United States reeling with a 3-0 win on the tournament's opening day, snuck into the semifinal and then stunned Sweden Sunday, 3-2, on an overtime goal by Detroit's Tomas Tatar to earn its spot opposite the Canadians.

If you haven't been paying close attention, what is "Team Europe"? It's players from any European nation that didn't have a team. So you can't be from Sweden, Finland, Russia or the Czech Republic. The representatives come from Germany and Slovakia (six players each); Switzerland (4); Denmark (3); and Austria, France, Norway and Slovenia (one each).

Former Sabres Thomas Vanek, Christian Ehrhoff and Andrej Sekera are getting regular minutes on a club that features big names such as Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, Chicago's Marian Hossa, Boston's Zdeno Chara, Nashville's Roman Josi and Detroit's Frans Nielsen. New York Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak has been the unquestioned MVP, stopping 142 of 150 shots while posting a 1.96 goals-against average and .947 save percentage over four games.

The general manager is former Sabres sniper Miroslav Satan, whose first real try in the management side of hockey has been going more than well. The coach is locquacious Ralph Krueger, a Canadian who serves as chairman of the Southampton Football Club in the English Premier League after getting fired on a Skype call by the Edmonton Oilers following the 2012-13 season.

"They are a great story," Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong said Sunday. "Shame on us if we don't take them seriously for what they've done to this point."

The task got tougher Monday when it was announced that Gaborik will miss the final series -- and be out for the next eight weeks -- because of a right foot injury suffered when he was struck by a puck Sunday. Gaborik , who scored the opening goal against Sweden, was seen leaving the ACC on crutches Monday.

"I don't spend much time thinking about Cinderella, so it's not a big issue for me," Team Canada coach Mike Babcock joked to reporters in Toronto after practice Monday. "But I get ready for Kopitar and Nielsen and the 'D' and the forwards and the players on their team. So I pretty much leave Cinderella out of it."

Team Europe started exhibition play getting smoked by Team North America. A 4-0 loss in Quebec City was followed by a 5-1 first-period deficit three nights later in Montreal. I was at the game in Quebec and Team Europe looked painfully old and slow. Most of us watching that night didn't expect them to win a game. Wrong.

Team Europe pulled it together in the second game to crawl within a goal and eventually lose, 7-4, then won its final pre-tourney game over Sweden in overtime. When they got to Toronto, Vanek told me he wasn't surprised the team came together quickly. He said he knew every player other than Edmonton youngster Leon Draisaitl, so becoming a team was easy.

And Team North America provided a wakeup call.

"I thank the kids for spanking us so hard," Krueger joked after the win over Team USA. "Because we had adversity early, it brought us together and clarified what we needed to do."

Team Canada has looked unbeatable while outscoring opponents, 19-6, in its six games. Carey Price, the goalie Montreal chose when it traded Halak in 2010, has a 1.67 GAA and .948 save percentage and captain Sidney Crosby is playing some of the best hockey of his life. Three months after hoisting the Stanley Cup, Crosby leads all scorers with seven points and is tied for the lead in goals (3) with teammate Jonathan Toews and linemate Brad Marchand. Sabres center Ryan O'Reilly is the pivot on the fourth line and a key penalty killer.

And while Canada's dominance has been no surprise, Team Europe probably deserved a little more respect. After all, its player have won the second-most Stanley Cups (eight) of any World Cup team to Canada's 14. But on the world stage, Canada's players have a combined 55 gold medals and Team Europe has none.

Norwegian forward Mats Zuccarello of the New York Rangers said Monday he had been to one quarterfinal of the World Championships and never anything deeper in international play.

On Media Day, Detroit's Nielsen said he made sure to look at his country's flag on the sleeve of his sweater to reflect on the exhibition victory over Sweden because Denmark had played the Swedes close to 200 times in international play and had never won.

"You're so pleased that these peripheral countries in the world of hockey have had an opportunity to compete with the best in the world for the first time in their life," Krueger said. "That's not possible when these players show up alone at tournaments. They're forever fighting relegation in world tournaments. They're forever fighting just to get to Olympic Games, forget about competing for anything at them."

They're competing now. The odds might still be long, even though Team Europe is just two games away from winning the World Cup. But who gave them any chance to even still be a team this week?

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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