A team that has no history to draw on and no future to build for, a team that was expected to be cannon fodder for the big boys under the contrived format of the World Cup of Hockey and was mocked with the newspaper headline “Euro trash?” after stumbling through its first two exhibition games, has earned the chance to challenge Canada for hockey supremacy.
Team Europe’s players have represented eight countries in international play but they spoke with one joyful voice after their 3-2 overtime upset of too-cautious Sweden in Sunday’s semifinal at Air Canada Centre. Slovak-born Tomas Tatar’s second goal — assisted by Norway’s Mats Zuccarello and Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar 3 minutes 43 seconds into sudden-death play — triggered a singing, bouncing celebration among players who barely knew each other a few weeks ago but have become brothers during this exhilarating and extraordinary ride.
“You’re going to have some dreams that some people, they might say are not realistic,” Europe goaltender Jaroslav Halak said after his 37-save performance, “but we created a story right now and we just need to keep going. I believe in this group and all the players we have on this team.”
They also believe they’re not done, although Canada is the heavy favorite based on its depth and a 4-0-0 record that includes a 4-1 victory over Europe in round-robin play. The best-of-three final will be played Tuesday, Thursday and, if necessary, Saturday at the Air Canada Centre.
“The games are going to be very hard and we have to play our very best to beat them. Do we think it’s doable? Yeah, for sure,” said Kopitar, who has been as influential a leader here as he is with the Kings. “It’s going to take a lot from us but we’re excited for the challenge. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re playing hard and playing for each other, and it’s been very fun so far.”
They had to rally Sunday to continue this long, strange trip. Nicklas Backstrom rebounded an Anton Stralman shot to give Sweden the lead at 2:31 of the second period, but Europe matched that when Kings winger Marian Gaborik slid a shot through the knees of goalie Henrik Lundqvist at 16:27. Tatar, of the Detroit Red Wings, put Europe back in front 12 seconds into the third period when he broke free to backhand home his own rebound, but Erik Karlsson tested the Europeans’ resolve when he tied it at 15:28 of the third period with a long shot from the right point.
Again, the Europeans regrouped, as they had after they were outscored, 11-4, in their first two pretournament games and created doubts about whether they belonged here. They don’t have a long history but they have an impressive hockey IQ and the experience brought by Stanley Cup winners Kopitar, Gaborik, Chicago’s Marian Hossa, Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara and former Bruin Dennis Seidenberg.
“I don’t know who didn’t expect much from them. They have very good players,” said Sweden captain Henrik Sedin. “I think their strength is a little bit that no one believes in them. They can play that way. They can sit back and they take the chances when they get them. That’s how they won today.”
Tatar’s winner went into the net after a centering pass by Zuccarello glanced off his skate, and Sweden challenged the play. That created a few nervous moments for Tatar.
“I was real shaky after they said they were reviewing it,” he said. “I know I didn’t do a kicking motion and I hoped they will see it the same way. I’m lucky they did.”
Team Europe got this far on more than mere luck, and Canada Coach Mike Babcock recognized that.
“They’re a real good team and we’re going to have a test,” he said. “They’ve earned the right to be here by doing things right. They’re no different than us.”
Canada’s primary edge is in its depth, which allows Babcock to play Joe Thornton on the fourth line and roll out Stanley Cup winners Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Ryan Getzlaf as his first three centers. Europe can’t match that, but neither could any other team in this tournament. Or at the last two Olympics.
Whatever Team Europe might lack in numbers it hopes to make up for with its cohesion.
“Everybody wants to be here. There’s not one guy that feels mixed emotions for this team,” Kopitar said.
That might not be enough in the final, but at least they have a chance.
“Because we have no past and we have no future, we are really capable of being in the now,” said Coach Ralph Krueger, whose regular job is being chairman of the English Premier League soccer team Southampton. “I think the better we do, the lower the chances might be that Team Europe gets invited back.”
“That's a joke,” he said, but the joke is really on all those who doubted them in the first place.