TORONTO -- For once in our sporting lives, hype proved to be right. On their first night in the tournament, all the curiosity was answered and Team North America quickly became the rage at the World Cup.
Team Canada is wondrous to watch and we pretty much knew the Flying Sidney Crosbys would be. The kids, however, have got the it factor. Air Canada Centre was buzzing at times during Team North America's dominant 4-1 win over Finland Sunday night and the anticipation quickly started for Monday night's game between the under-24 team and Russia, which is desperate for a win after losing to Sweden.
You want some perspective on how good Team North America was Sunday? Detroit senior vice president Jimmy Devellano had some mammoth praise for the young guns while talking to the Hockey News between periods.
Seaid Devellano: "You give me Team North America and I’d win a Stanley Cup with them within two years. They’re better than 20 teams in the NHL right now.”
That's heady stuff indeed but the kids were that impressive. On their own, it's probably no suprise when you consider a lineup featuring five of the last six No. 1 overall picks plus the likes of Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Jonathan Drouin and Stanley Cup winners like Brandon Saad and Matt Murray.
But this performance probably exceeded expectations. Ten players had points and defenseman Colton Parayko was the only player with two, both assists. Fifteen of the 18 skaters had at least one shot on goal. The shots on goal in the game were 43-25 and the attempts were 77-40. It was domination at times over the final 40 minutes.
"I think it's just everyone thinks the game pretty well," said Connor McDavid, who had a couple of Mario Lemeiux-style rushes to the net. "We've been juggling the lines quite a bit and everyone has been trying to play with everyone but tonight it clicked."
"They're the youngest players in the tournament but they've been in the limelight and the spotlight their whole careers," said coach Todd McLellan. " ... I think they understand the whole presentation of the game itself and how to behave. When you mix their skill level and their ability to come together as a group, now you have a team."
McLellan was careful with the minutes knowing there was another game Monday. But it was still weird to see only one forward (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) over 16 minutes. The big names weren't even over 15.
"If we tried to run 82 games with these guys, we'd probably have a few trade requests whether it was agents or the player himself," McLellan joked. "There's just not enough minutes to go around. Fourteen- something would be a real bad night in Edmonton for Connor. It was a real good night for him and his line. Fourteen minutes is how it goes through."
When adversity struck, Team North America didn't shy away. It lost two potential goals in the first period, one swept away at the goal line and the other wiped out on video review after it was ruled Finnish goaltender Pekka Rinne was pushed into the net with the puck under his skate. No matter. The kids piled up an 18-6 bulge in shots in the middle period and scored three times.
"Those two goals were pretty close," said Eichel. "Instead of a 3-0 game, it's 1-0. We were able to open it up a bit in the second with some big goals. We did a lot of things we talked about before the game, which is good. We started to realize what was going to work against them and that's what made us successful. We kept the puck away from Rinne, put it behind their defenseman, used our speed. That's how we're going to win games."
Perhaps the biggest revelation to Team North America has been the play of Auston Matthews, who has gone from 13th player at the start of camp to McDavid's wing by the first game and made it quite clear why he was the No. 1 overall pick.
Matthews was a flat-out stud Sunday, tying for the team lead in shots on goal with five and setting up Eichel's goal by driving the wall past Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen in the kind of play that a defender looking for a big-money, long-term deal has to be better on.
"That's a pretty good feeling to go out there and contribute," said Matthews, who got a huge roar from the Toronto crowd during pregame introductions. "All four lines really brought something tonight. Everybody is out there doing their part. We utilized our strengths and put them on their heels."
McLellan was blown away by Matthews' play.
"I thought he was going to have a helluva game and he did," McLellan said. "There was no fear at all of playing him. He just hasn't played his first game yet. He's an NHL player. I know that. everyone here knows that. He's that good a player. He belongs where he is right now. He fits where he is.
"There's no 'hey, let's babysit him and make sure we're protecting him.' You let him play. He's got all the skills and he's playing the right way. You can't ask any more of him."
On the scoresheet, the play read Eichel from Matthews and McDavid. The first goal in Team North America history. Pretty appropriate given all the hype, I'd say. Hockey fans seem pretty unanimous about this group: More please. A lot more.