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Dear Hockey Gods: Let Team North America play some more

Mike Harrington

TORONTO -- There is only one thing to say from this view after having more fun than anyone should have for getting paid to go watch a hockey game.

Let's go, Fin-land. Clap-clap-clap-clap-clap.

Let's go, Fin-land. Clap-clap-clap-clap-clap.

What's that, you say? Journalists aren't supposed to root? You're right. But in this case, I think you'll agree I'm within bounds to pull for the greater good of the sport.

If the hockey gods have any sense of history and justice -- and any semblance of brains -- Finland will beat Russia in regulation Thursday in its final game of group play and let Team North America go through to the semifinals of the World Cup.

We love this sport so much even when it infuriates us to no end (hello, toenail challenges). So it's not fair that we might have seen the last of the 23-and-under phenoms playing together in their orange and black gear that folks in and around the Air Canada Centre are struggling to keep on the shelves.

But in the wake of their riveting, rollicking and downright historic overtime triumph Wednesday over Sweden, that's where we are. The 4-3 victory put Team North America at 2-1, behind the semifinal-bound Swedes (2-0-1). If Russia beats Finland Thursday afternoon, it finishes 2-1 and sends the kids back to NHL training camp by virtue of its head-to-head win over them Monday.

Imagine that. The baby faces would have wins over veteran teams from Finland and Sweden and a one-goal loss to the vaunted Russians and would be done.

What a bummer that would be.

We know the end is near anyway but the world needs at least one more game with Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews playing on the same line. One more game to see Johnny Gaudreau go all Johnny Hockey on us by dangling up a storm. One more game to see the sick mitts of Nathan MacKinnon remind us why he was a No. 1 overall pick too. One more game to see future blueline studs Shayne Gostisbehere, Colton Parayko and Seth Jones.

And yes, one more game to see Buffalo's own Jack Eichel build on Wednesday's terrific bounceback performance and even spend a few more shifts on power plays with McDavid and Matthews.

"We've definitely turned some heads," McDavid said. "People didn't know what to expect at the beginning of this tournament but we beat two good hockey teams. Ultimately maybe we should have beaten the Russians. I think we've definitely turned some heads and opened the eyes of everyone to know the future of the NHL is bright. We're definitely excited about that."

Veteran Toronto writers were immediately pegging this as one of the great best-on-best games in hockey history. We're talking the same paragraph as Mario Lemieux's famous overtime goal up the QEW in Hamilton that won the 1987 Canada Cup or the legendary tie between the Canadiens and Central Red Army on New Year's Eve in 1975 at the Montreal Forum.

You'll forever remember the first two minutes. It started with McDavid's dash up the ice - less than five seconds from end to end - followed by Matthews' absurd stickhandle on his knees around Tampa Bay blueline stalwart Victor Hedman and his drive to the net to beat Henrik Sedin to a rebound and score after just 30 seconds.

Then came Gaudreau's missed penalty shot 26 seconds later. Then came Vincent Trocheck's goal at 1:25 off slick passing from Eichel and Gostisbehere. It was 2-0 and the building was in an uproar.

The Swedes were stunned.

Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson said he was thinking "wake the bleep up" because "they gave us a slap in the face right away." Chicago blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson, a 29-year-old owner of of three Stanley Cups, said "it was embarrassing. I felt pretty old there."

Sedin was laughing and shaking his head when reporters asked about the start of the game. "The first couple shifts," he said, "we were sitting there laughing."

The Swedes battled back, wiping out a pair of two-goal deficits and riding 45 saves in net from Henrik Lundqvist, who is called The King for a reason. They nearly won it in OT but Anaheim's John Gibson, playing in place of injured Pittsburgh ace Matt Murray, stopped Daniel Sedin on a breakaway.

"We became fans," said Team North America coach Todd McLellan. "I was standing on the bench going 'No, no, no' and 'go, go go..It was just going back and forth. The energy in the building and the passion of the fans and the players. I've seen a lot of excited players and that bench was very excited. It was a lot of fun."

The breathaking 3-on-3 period went to the other end and Gaudreau found MacKinnon all alone in front of Lundqvist. The Colorado ace deked, Lundqvist missed the pokecheck and MacKinnon was able to skate the puck around him and lift it into the net. Game over.

"We're hoping for the Finns," MacKinnon said. "When I scored I thought we were in. Me and 'A-Matts' were talking, maybe we shouldnt have 'celly'd' that hard. If we lost we're out so we gave ourselves a chance. It's fun, going to be very stressful tomorrow. But we've got some faith in the Finns to give us a win."

Team North America isn't celebrating if Eichel doesn't come back in his zone a minute earlier to break up a 2-on-1, with defenseman Morgan Rielly the only man back and playing without a stick. Eichel played 16:16 in this one, had five shots on goal and was much more engaged than either of the first two games in the tournament. (Locker rooms are not open to the media and Eichel was not brought to an interview area).

Afterward, McLellan was celebrating the craziest three weeks of his hockey life. When they met up Sept. 4 in Montreal, they were kids with barriers. Whether it was US/Canada, NHL team or junior league, there were some unnatural unions to mesh together. Somehow, it's worked.

They magically became a team in fast-forward fashion and we'll never forget them. The next World Cup is almost certain to have another Team North America.

"I thought we could be dangerous and have fun playing as a team. I didn't think we'd have as big an impact on the hockey world as we have had so far," McLellan said. "We've proven this young generation can play with the older. We've been very entertaining. If you survey 99 out of 100 fans, they'd say, 'Put them in again.' Those are all real positives.

"The Canadian-American contingent playing in this tournament right now were this team eight years ago. As we move forward and Connor and Jack Eichel and these young men become older, there's somebody playing pee wee and bantam right now who is going to play in this eight years from now. I don't know who they are but they'll be good too."

It may be hard, however, for them to be this good. That's why we don't want this to end. At least not yet.

Sorry, Russia. We know the Cold War is over. But come Thursday afternoon, we are all Finns.



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