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After opening hoopla, Team North America goes for KO of Russians

TORONTO -- The first-night unveiling was a smashing success. But Team North America now has a huge challenge Monday night in Air Canada Centre: Prepare to play the second half of a back-to-back and do it against Team Russia, which will be desperate to keep its hopes alive after losing Sunday to Sweden.

Team North America's 4-1 win over Finland is the talk of the hockey world today -- getting the bulk of the nine pages of coverage in today's Toronto Sun, for instance. That game proved this is no novelty act.

"There's a lot of people who were unsure what our team could do with it being the first time it's ever been put together," Team North America captain Connor McDavid said today. "That's totally understandable but we had a lot of belief in our locker room and in ourselves that we could do something. It was a good start but we've got a long way to go."

Beating Team Russia, of course, sets up the likely scenario that Team North America will advance out of its group to the semifinals and the Russians would be just about toast.

"It's going to be desperate hockey for both sides," McDavid said. "It's a huge game for us too. If we win, it sets us up pretty good. ... They're hockey giants, one of the best hockey nations in the world, and they're in a desperate spot. It's a good opportunity for us to put them down."

Team North America coach Todd McLellan understood the hoopla over his club's debut, especially its firewagon offensive attack. But he said he was equally impressed with his club's 200-foot game, which allowed 25 shots on goal in the game and just 13 over the final 40 minutes.

"Everybody is giving them credit for the attack and offensive plays, which are fun to watch. But they begin because they're doing something else right," he said. "There's a commitment level that players are getting to that allows them to do that and go the other way. They want to show the world and the rest of the hockey community that they have the ability to defend and check and take some pride in that part of the game as well."

Only a handful of Russian players skated today and Team North America stayed off the ice entirely. One Russian who skated and met the media was new Sabres defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and he was duly impressed by what he saw from Team North America on Sunday.

"It's nothing unexpected. Whatever you saw from the exhibition game from that team, that's what you got in the first tournament game," Kulikov said. "They're a fast team, all in the attack. Whenever they get a chance, they fly their wingers and drive the net. You can't hope to match the speed with some of their guys because they're fast. You've got to always stay ready.

"It was fun to watch. Finland's structure is one of the best in international hockey. I did not expect a blowout but I thought North America had a really good chance of winning it and it showed."

Kulikov said the Russians know this is a win-or-bust proposition.

"If you win the first game, you tend to play a bit looser the next game because you already have one in the pocket," he said. "If you lose one game, it's up to us to win that next one. Who knows who's going to be more hungry? I sure hope we are because we desperately need that win."

Kulikov smiled when asked by The Buffalo News if he paid an extra bit of attention to future teammate Jack Eichel, whom he will join in Sabres camp in the next couple of weeks.

"Yeah, yeah. I did get to see him. He's in good shape," Kulikov said. "It looks like he's really skating. Obviously he's got great linemates playing with him and they're fun to watch. Their whole team is something else."



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