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TORONTO – Team North America has become a World Cup of Hockey’s obsession because of the stamina and speed of their under-23 NHL stars.
But, truth be told, Nathan MacKinnon was exhausted. And it’s a good thing he was.
The Colorado Avalanche center, 21, was in the midst of a 1 minute, 20 second shift in the 3-on-3 overtime between North America and Sweden on Wednesday, and in the midst of a heart-exploding sequence of back-and-forth hockey.
MacKinnon took a shot that was saved by Henrik Lundqvist. With three North American players in the attacking zone, defenseman Erik Karlsson sent a pass to the red line where Daniel Sedin of Sweden took it, spun and skated in on goalie John Gibson alone.
Gibson flashed his right leg out to make the save.
John Gibson makes this save on Daniel Sedin all alone right before Nathan MacKinnon’s winner pic.twitter.com/mehNGXRjle
— Marina Molnar (@mkmolnar) September 21, 2016
“That shift was a long one. Back and up and down the ice. Gibby made a huge save for us,” said forward Johnny Gaudreau.
The puck was then poked back to the neutral zone where MacKinnon took it, and skated in with Gaudreau. He hit the Calgary Flames winger with a pass; he fired, the crowd rose to its feet, but Lundqvist deflected to the puck away.
As the puck trickled up the boards, MacKinnon skated laboriously through the offensive zone. He looked gassed. Gaudreau, however, had a little more gas in his tank, skating hard and beating Henrik Sedin and Karlsson to the puck.
“I looked up, saw MacKinnon at the front of the net, wide open. I laid it in there for him,” said Gaudreau.
“And he did the rest.”
MacKinnon took the pass in the faceoff circle to Lundqvist’s left, as the crowd roared. Every other player was either at the blue line or beyond it. The game had come down to one young forward at the end of a long shift, and one all-world goalie playing his second game in two days.
“I was pretty tired, actually,” said MacKinnon. “That was my first thought when I got the puck. It was in my feet, so I didn’t want to mess it up.”
Lundqvist saw that MacKinnon was by himself. “He had a lot of time. I’m just not patient. I tried to get the puck with my stick,” said the New York Rangers goalie, “and then I’m done.”
MacKinnon watched Lundqvist swipe at the puck with his stick, and managed to dangle it on his forehand, protecting it from the veteran Swedish goalie’s lumber.
“I was dribbling the puck and I saw his stick come up for a poke check. I managed to deke that and get it up,” said MacKinnon.
He went to his backhand, and roofed a shot under the crossbar as Lundqvist sprawled on the ice. The crowd exploded, the goal horn sounded and Team North America poured from the bench to mob MacKinnon, celebrating an epic 4-3 win in perhaps the tournament’s most exhilarating and satisfying game.
Well, for everyone except Lundqvist.
“Disappointed with that. I need be way more patient. I felt like I was sharp. I should have trusted my instincts. I could just see him, and the time he had. I made the first move, and I lost,” he said.
“But overall, we’re just happy we’re in.”
That, of course, is the postscript on an amazing game that saw North America score two goals in the first 1:35 of the first period, and had Lundqvist stop Gaudreau on a penalty shot in between them: That Sweden, with the rally for the overtime charity point, clinched the top of Group B and a spot in the tournament semifinal beginning this weekend.
Had Team North America won in regulation, it would have at best won the head-to-head tiebreaker with Sweden to advance; and at worst, would have been in a three-way tie with Sweden and Russia that it likely would have broken via goal-differential (if Russia had beaten Finland, via a reasonable score).
Winning in overtime means that the Swedes are in, and North America needs a Russian loss of any type against Finland on Thursday to advance.
The heartbreaking coda to this victory? That the North America players were unaware of any of this.
“I was extremely excited when I got to the locker room, when I got done with [postgame] media. But the guys were kinda down. I didn’t know. I thought we were in if we won,” said Gaudreau.
“When I scored, I thought we were in,” said MacKinnon.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have celly’d that hard.”
Well, of course they should have. It was an epic, memorable victory for one of the greatest assemblages of young talent in hockey history. We’ll look back on this game, as we will this team, in about 10 years when MacKinnon and Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel have all fulfilled their promise – we’ll be awestruck.
And we’ll remember moments like this when, hopefully, the next Team North America generation makes history of its own.
“As we move forward, and Connor and Jack Eichel and all those young men become older, there’s somebody playing pee wee and bantam out there right now that are going to play in this eight years from now,” said North America coach Todd McLellan. “We don’t know who they are, but they’ll be good, too.”
Hopefully version 1.0 isn’t done making memories in the World Cup.
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