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Inside the NHL: World Cup memories from a crazy opening week

TORONTO -- The World Cup of Hockey is down to the nitty-gritty, with the semifinals this weekend and the best-of-three final series opening Tuesday night. Those who called it nothing but a cash grab have been proven wrong as the hockey and the storylines have been sensational.

Even before the final faces off, there's plenty to look back at and learn from. Here's what's been filling my notebook from group play:

One and done?

After Team North America's unfortunate elimination and Team USA's opening loss to Team Europe, you heard a lot of chatter about the tournament format and how one loss shouldn't be a death knell. One thing that could have been done was advance the two group winners and the best second-place team to the semifinals and then have a one-game playoff for that final semifinal slot.

Under that scenario, Canada, Sweden and Russia would have advanced and Team North America would have met Team Europe in the play-in game for the right to claim the fourth semifinal berth. That would have dramatically cut the impact of tiebreakers deciding stay-or-go-home scenarios.

Team USA essentially lost its chance to advance with its opening loss to Team Europe. Team North America will forever rue the four goals it gave up to the Russians in a six-minute span, because they ultimately proved to undo its other 179 minutes of breathtaking hockey.

"You can't have a stinker game or a lull or two and not pay with your ultimate chance," said Team USA's David Backes. "You can't afford that. We used our lifelines right away with Team Europe and we weren't able to get CPR in our last chance against Canada."

Team North America coach Todd McLellan obviously sympathized with that viewpoint.

"It's a hard tournament to coach in and a hard tournament to win," he said. "There's no time for a stinker. If you have a bad game, you're pretty much done. It doesn't matter. You just don't have enough time to recover and get going again. Fans, Americans in particular, have to understand it's hard to construct a team and it's hard to coach a team here. If you're winning, you don't often get second-guessed. If you lose, it's completely that way."

"I thought we were the second-best team in the tournament," a somber Team North America General Manager Peter Chiarelli told ESPN.com before leaving town Thursday. "Having said that, we played by the rules and that's it."

What does USA Hockey need?

Obviously, it needs the influx of top talent from Team North America. Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Brandon Saad and Shayne Gostisbehere, among others, would have certainly made a big difference. It needs better leadership, someone to drive the program like Steve Yzerman has in the past for Canada. It certainly needs better coaching and should look to Pittsburgh's Mike Sullivan or Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper as potential bench bosses so John Tortorella never gets near another international tournament.

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 16: Head coach of Team USA John Tortorella gives instructions during practice at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre on September 16, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Team USA coach John Tortorella hardly distinguished himself. (Getty Images)

Team USA General Manager Dean Lombardi won two Stanley Cups in Los Angeles and was clearly trying to a build a team here that was good for the short run as well. The Kings, remember, were third in the Pacific Division both years they won the Cup but were ready for the playoffs. It was a miserable failure. Team USA overdosed on prep for Team Canada and forgot to show up for Team Europe.

By the time the tournament was over, it was easy to say Team USA and Finland, which scored just one goal in a transition year for its program, were the worst clubs in the field.

Lombardi did a postmortem with reporters here Thursday and it was borderline silly the way he backed up his cockeyed methodology for building this club and said the surprising no-show against Team Europe was the real culprit for the USA problems.

"I’ve been on a team that’s been down 3-0 in a  Stanley Cup series, and that’s the proverbial 8-ball,” Lombardi said, referring to the Kings' comeback from 3-0 down against San Jose in 2014. “This felt like a boulder. It was just really strange. Like, how can this happen so quickly, where your back is against the wall after one poor game? That's a game we should have won."

Lombardi said he was touched by the raw emotion he saw in the dressing room after the loss to Team Canada, emotion reporters saw a few minutes later in the eyes and voices of Patrick Kane and Ryan Suter.

"The real appraisal is looking at yourself in the mirror," he said. "I came up with four or five things where, if I had a chance again, would I have done it differently? I beat myself up more than anyone can possibly.”

Unlike those around hockey, the players who made the team were not critical of management or the coaching of Tortorella, at least not publicly. Washington's T.J. Oshie even said Tuesday before the loss to Team Canada that "if the game was 100 percent talent, Canada will win and if it's 100 per cent grit, we will win."

That's called buying into foolishness your leaders are feeding you.

Up and down run for Eichel

It will be interesting to hear Jack Eichel's appraisal of the tournament and Team North America's finish when he reports to Sabres camp. Eichel was not one of the players made available after the epic win over Sweden (locker rooms are closed during this event), so we don't know his thoughts on his bounceback game.

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 18: Jack Eichel #15 of Team North America tries to get around Esa Lindell #7 of Team Finland in the first period during the World Cup of Hockey at the Air Canada Center on September 18, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Jack Eichel of Team North America tries to get around Esa Lindell  of Team Finland. (Getty Images)

After a flameout against Russia that landed him on the bench for the finish of that one and a bottom-six role against Sweden, Eichel was much stronger in the finale. And he saved the game by coming back to break up a 2-on-1 just before Nathan MacKinnon's winning goal -- while defenseman Morgan Rielly was trying to defend the play without a stick.

I can't get over the number of people telling me they're glad Team North America lost so Eichel can get back to Sabres camp and get ready for the season. Are you kidding me? Did you watch any of these games? These were seminal moments for the sport and another week of Team North America on ESPN would have been the best thing for hockey in eons. Sometimes you just have to think about the bigger picture.

Eichel won't need to build a ton of chemistry when he gets back to camp anyway. He's not a rookie anymore. He'll have instant synergy again with Sam Reinhart and he's already completely in game shape, more than of any his Buffalo teammates. And the Sabres' season doesn't even start until Oct. 13, so what's the rush?

Eichel, Matthews and Connor McDavid would all still be eligible for Team North America in 2020 if the rules and format stay the same. But that's not going to happen. McDavid said here Thursday he would prefer to play for Team Canada the next time and the scuttlebutt is that even if the under-24 team is kept together, the rules will state that players can only appear with them one time before returning to their national team.

These young players are just starting their careers but people need to understand how special this was. We'll likely never see McDavid and Matthews working their magic together again. Nor Eichel joining them on the power play. Nor Gaudreau and Nathan MacKinnon combining for memories like the overtime winner against Sweden. They're all from opposite sides of the Canada-USA rivalry and seem forever to be destined as foes.

They said it

  • The most prescient quote came MacKinnon, after the first day of Team North America practice Sept. 5 in Montreal: "I don't think there's another more skilled team than ours. I'll go against anybody's roster and put ours against them, and for speed and skill, this isn't a full season or a playoffs, this is one-and-done. And we have the talent and ability to beat anybody, for sure."
  • Team North America goalie John Gibson after the Sweden victory: "This was playoff hockey before the season even starts."
  • McLellan using one of his favorite baseball analogies prior to the Sweden game: "I want us to swing the bat, not take the first pitch and go looking for a walk. Swing the bat and put the ball in play."
  • Team Canada coach Mike Babcock:  "The North American kids have been a home run for the NHL. This North American team is a pump in the arm for hockey. It's fantastic."

    TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 20: Head coach Mike Babcock of Team Canada yells on the bench while playing Team USA during the World Cup of Hockey at the Air Canada Center on September 20, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

    Head coach Mike Babcock of Team Canada was impressed with Team North America. (Getty Images)

  • Babcock II: "I like watching that team because there's tons of skill. I like winning more, though. I just want to win. That's what our players came for. They came to win."

Around the boards

Whose stock has risen the most  in the World Cup? Plenty of people were even more blown away than they expected to be by Matthews, but a big talking point in the tournament has been the job done by Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger. His team looked hopeless the night of that first exhibition vs. Team North America in Quebec City but Krueger stayed the course, understanding those older legs might take a little while longer to get into gear.

Most believe Kreuger got a raw deal in getting only one season to coach in Edmonton, and that he will get back on the radar for NHL work after this tournament.

  • Is there any doubt after this tournament that the Edmonton Oilers are going to make McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history? Has to happen. The Sabres don't have to do that with Eichel because they have Brian Gionta on board with Ryan O'Reilly in the wings. A 'C' for McDavid would be perfectly timed in the wake of the World Cup and with the Oilers opening their new arena.
  • I still can't get over Media Day. Has there ever been a greater collection of the game's stars available for interviews in one six-hour period? You're talking 170 player from all countries. For the members of the Fourth Estate, it was simply epic.
  • Not a great tournament for the Dallas Stars. Jamie Benn pulled out before it started, Tyler Seguin dropped out during exhibition play due to a heel fracture while Radek Faksa (concussion) and Ales Hemsky (groin) were both injured playing for the Czech Republic. Inherent risks for sure but the Flying Lindys sure seemed to get dealt a bad hand. GMs around the league certainly had to be holding their breath watching some of the high-flying action of these games. Wouldn't you have paid a penny, or a lot of pennies, for the thoughts of Tim Murray after Eichel took that viciously high hit from Montreal's Alexei Emelin in the Team North America-Russia game?

 

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