QUEBEC CITY -- The pattern went pretty much as predicted. Team North America is young, spry and speedy. Team Europe is older and, especially on defense, much slower. Speed won in Thursday night's exhibition opener for both teams in the World Cup of Hockey.
After a scoreless opening 20 minutes, Team North America exploded for three goals in the first half of the second period to pull away and post a 4-0 win before a near-sellout crowd of 18,005 in Videotron Centre.
Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Johnny Gaudreau scored in the middle frame for Team North America, with Sabres center Jack Eichel assisting on Gaudreau's goal. MacKinnon wrapped up the scoring with a nifty backhander on a penalty shot with 8:09 to play. Matt Murray, who came from the minor leagues to win the Stanley Cup for Pittsburgh in June, made 23 saves in goal to earn the shutout.
Eichel report: Team North America's No. 2 center played 15 minutes, 14 seconds in the game. He was credited with four shots on goal, tied for game-high honors with three other players. His strong rush through the neutral zone helped bring the puck into the offensive zone on Gaudreau's goal. Perhaps most interesting was the way Eichel played defensively, making a couple of strong backchecks through his own zone.
"It's something I wanted to come out here and do," Eichel said. "I think the offense will take care of itself. We have a lot of guys who can score goals but it's something I want to get better at, playing more consistent 200 feet, more ahead in the D zone, picking up my checks. It was a good game for us."
First period thoughts: It was a scoreless frame that went more than eight minutes without a whistle at one point. Team North America's speed was immediately evident as Connor McDavid dominated the first three shifts he was on the ice and Team Europe's plodding defense seemed to be in trouble. But the Europeans, with an average age nearly eight years more than the North Americans, got the game back under control in the second half of the period.
Second-period thoughts: Team North America took advantage of opportunity, scoring three goals on six shots to take a 3-0 lead. MacKinnon was dangerous on just about every shift he took and veteran Team Europe defenseman Zdeno Chara, booed every time he touched by the puck by Montreal fans in the crowd, was victimized by two of the goals.
The goals: MacKinnon opened the scoring at 3:52 of the second on a power play, driving home Aaron Ekblad's shot off the back boards on a power play. Chara was burned on the next two, by Nugent-Hopkins at 6:22 and Gaudreau at 8:34. Eichel made that play with a good rush through the neutral zone and into the Team Europe end.
Eichel on the Gaudreau goal: "Johnny pushed it to our 'D' back there we were able to get a 2-on-1. That's how we want to play. (Seth) Jones gets the puck to me and all of sudden we're going 200 feet and on the way to scoring a goal. That's how you want to see it go."
Ouch: New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller left early in the third period after taking a shot directly on his left hand. He did return.
Scratches: Former Sabres winger Thomas Vanek, who signed over the summer with Detroit, was one of three players who sat out for Team Europe. He was joined by defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and goalie Phillip Grubauer. Team North America sat Detroit winger Dylan Larkin, St. Louis defenseman Colton Parayko and Winnipeg goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
Familiar faces: On the Team Europe defense were former Sabres Andrej Sekera (Edmonton) and unsigned veteran Christian Ehrhoff.
Who's watching the game? Team Europe was credited with a 23-21 advantage in shots on goal but the numbers seemed woefully off. More than a few scoring chances were not recorded as shots, notably a backhand through the faceoff circle by McDavid midway through the third period that Halak clearly made save on. Europe outshot the North Americans, 7-6, in the second period and that also seemed dubious
Arena report: The Videotron Centre got glowing reviews from longtime NHL media members, who agreed it would easily be rated in the top third of NHL facilities if Quebec City was back in the league. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly made his first visit and echoed the thought when speaking to reporters in the first intermission. Said Daly: "I think it’s a first-rate NHL arena. It would be fantastic for an NHL team here." Of course, Quebec's chances are currently nil and Daly said there's no expansion talk on the agenda for a Board of Governors meeting Sept. 23.
Old school: The Videotron Centre is located next door to Le Colisee, the home of the old Quebec Nordiques. The building that housed NHL games from 1979-1995, including bitter rivalries with the Montreal Canadiens and a pair of 1980s playoff series against the Sabres, is now shuttered and is expected to be demolished.