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Practice Report

Team North America getting it done on defense

23-and-under group known for high-octane offense doing what's necessary without puck to win

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO -- The attack was the focus. It was hard to see anything else when Team North America swarmed Team Finland, keeping the puck in the offensive zone sometimes longer than it seemed possible. But perhaps more important to the fortunes for Team North America, a team comprised of players 23-and-under from the United States and Canada created for the World Cup of Hockey 2016, is its play without the puck.

Which, as coach Todd McLellan pointed out, was better than some might have anticipated in its win against Team Finland on Sunday.

"I thought [Sunday] was our best night defensively as a team," McLellan said. "It will have to get better as the tournament goes."

Video: NAT@FIN: Eichel puts home rebound on the power play

That starts Monday, when Team North America plays Team Russia (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).

Like Team North America, Team Russia likes to play a puck possession game. Team Russia has vowed to play an even more amped-up version of that, and will try to test its less experienced opponents by seeing what they can do when they're not on the attack.

Team North America believes it's ready.

"They play kind of a similar game to us," Team North America captain Connor McDavid said. "They play with a lot of speed, they play north/south. They're always holding onto the puck and making good plays. So I think they're offensively gifted. That has been a question, our defense. I think we answered that [Sunday]."

Because it wasn't just about the offense. It wasn't just the ankle-breaking plays and highlight reel goals.

"Everybody's giving them credit for the attack and the offensive plays, which is really fun to watch," McLellan said of his players. "But they begin because they're doing something else right. We watched the video and it would be nice to watch it from the blue line, tic-tac-toe and it's in the net.

"But you've got to take it back further and there's a commitment level that the players have to get to, or are getting to, that allows them to do that and go the other way. They want to show the world and the rest of the hockey community that they have the ability to defend and check, and take some pride in that part of the game as well."

And so far they have. Defenseman Ryan Murray said that it's not always the case that offensively gifted players, especially young ones, do those extra defensive things to win. But his teammates, he said, have done so. He has seen them make plays that they might not, say, during a regular-season game in the middle of the season, taking the body and backchecking and making the hit to make the play.

"Everyone knows our offensive capabilities," Murray said. "But I think that especially [Sunday], we did a great job of coming back, great job in our own zone of coming back, stopping, not cheating. I think that we just have to keep playing like that if we want to win for sure. We have to defend first, because if we get in the offensive zone we have so many guys that can make plays and get pucks and create opportunities for us. If we defend and hold the other team to below 20 shots, below 25 shots, we're going to have a great chance to win every night."

That includes against Team Russia, even if it tries to defeat Team North America at that exact same game.

"We've got to take pride in playing defensively, and our group will do that," McLellan said. "The game plan for them, it might match our game plan. We might want to play with the puck a little bit too. So it'll start with faceoffs. Can we win more than they [do]? It'll start with loose puck battles. And I think the Russians have always been good players at using their body position and stripping.

"So we'll talk to our team about those types of situations. We've got to do that before we get to offense, before we get to making nice plays. We've got to do those things first. But we'll take the game as it comes. Maybe we can counter with our own puck-possession game and see what they do."

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