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Canada, Crosby on top of the world heading into Cup clincher

TORONTO -- The World Cup isn't ending with the kind of splash it might have had Team North America or Team USA made the final. Team Europe is a nice feel-good story for sure but it doesn't grab the headlines like the others would have.

What has become completely clear in this tournament, however, is that Canada is staunchly on top of the world pecking order at the game's highest level. And the top of the top is Sidney Crosby, who has never been better than he is right now at age 29.

Team Canada entered Game Two of the best-of-three final looking for a sweep of Team Europe Thursday in Air Canada Centre. And it has been surgical with its precision in this event -- outscoring its opponents, 22-7, and trailing for just a combined 2 minutes, 41 seconds.

Canada entered the game with 15 straight victories in best-on-best international competitions, dating to a loss to the United States in the pool play portion of the Vancouver Olympics. The run started there, went through Crosby's Golden Goal against Ryan Miller, the 2014 Sochi Games and its first five games of this tournament.

Crosby is one of seven players who have been on the ice for all of those games under coach Mike Babcock. The others are Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews. That's a pretty incredible core right there with 10 Stanley Cups between them, and it's what the hockey-mad nation needed to get its program turned around.

Canada had the sort of reckoning USA Hockey endured at this tournament back in 2006 at the Torino Olympics, when Crosby was just halfway through his rookie season and not part of the roster. Imagine this: Canada was shut out in pool play in back-to-back games by Switzerland and Finland and was blanked again by Russia in the quarterfinals, finishing seventh. Yes, seventh. The leading scorer was Brad Richards, with just four points.

The big names at the time were Martin Brodeur, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Jarome Iginla. Joe Sakic was at the tail end of his career. The roster wasn't nearly good enough. Now look at the talent: The fourth line is Ryan O'Reilly between Joe Thornton and Matt Duchene

How good has this core been? Washington goalie Braden Holtby, who set the all-time victory record and won the Vezina Trophy last season, isn't dressing. Philadelphia's Claude Giroux has been a healthy scratch for all of one game in this tournament. He's only led the NHL in points over the last five years. It's only going to get better when Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon graduate to this group.

And Canada keeps developing more stars. Boston's Brad Marchand has emerged into a 30-goal scorer in the NHL and has thrived in this tournament. What a week for Marchand: He's getting fed by Crosby and signed an eight-year, $49-million extension with the Bruins.

Opponents understandably feel helpless at times. Team Europe forward and former Sabre Thomas Vanek raised plenty of headlines here this week when he said it would be "impossible" to beat the Canadians twice.

Canada won Game One of the final, 3-1, on Tuesday as Team Europe was within a goal with 12 minutes left and was outshot by just 38-33. It was hardly the domination people might have expected but that also means it was quite a lost opportunity for the upstarts.

"Game One of a short series is important and we played good. But against them, good is not good," said Vanek. "You have to be perfect. We made a few mistakes. You make them against that team, you'll lose."

Crosby leads all players in the tournament with nine points and his line with the Boston duo of Marchand and Patrice Bergeron has been the most dominant one of the eight teams. And he was well prepared to raise the World Cup for the first time in his career. He's got practice in these spots.

"It's exciting as a player to be in those situations," Crosby said Thursday after his team's pregame skate. "It's not every day you get to be in those type of scenarios. I think with each one you gain more of an appreciation for it and understand that there's only a short window to be a hockey player in the NHL and not everyone gets those opportunities.

"You just try to make the most of them and have fun with them but there's always a heightened sense of anticipation on those days. That's why you love to play the game for big games like that."

Crosby, remember, was thought to be on the downside of his career a scant 10 months ago. The Penguins were hovering around .500 and he was having trouble scoring goals under coach Mike Johnston. Then Mike Sullivan took over, the Penguins soared to another Cup and Crosby looks as good now as he did in June when he was wrapping up the Conn Smythe Trophy and taking the cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in San Jose.

"There might have been questions outside of the league about Sid but you talk to any player in the league, there's no one that can compare to Sid," Marchand said. "In hockey, bounces don't always go in and plays aren't always scored. It can be a matter of inches. To think things were going to be perfect all the time, they won't be. You always knew Sid was going to bounce back from a tough start for his standards. The way he was able to rebount was just a phenomenal second half. There's no question he's the best player in the World."

Crosby acknowledged game day of a potential clincher is a special feeling. He's kind of getting used to these.

"If you look at each one, it's kind of different. That's how I look at them," Crosby said. "They're special, they're different. The biggest thing is that excitement, that joy doesn't change with any of them. It's all the same that way. You work hard. As a group you try to get to that point and to accomplish that is special."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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