Team Canada and Team Europe will play the opener of their best-of-3 final series of the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, CBC, TVA Sports).
Team Canada dominated most of the game in its 4-1 win against Team Europe in the final game of the preliminary round for each team last Wednesday.
Team Canada found another gear in its semifinal game against Team Russia on Saturday, scoring three times in the third period for a 5-3 victory. One day later, Team Europe defeated Team Sweden 3-2 when Tomas Tatar scored at 3:43 of overtime.
Here are the reasons for optimism for Team Europe and Team Canada:
One month ago, Team Europe was a collection of players from eight countries trying to figure out how to play as a unit. Suffice it to say that coach Ralph Krueger has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. After poor showings in its first two pretournament games, Team Europe has become just that -- a team.
"Our coaching staff and everybody has been in this position of underdog for most of the time in international tournaments with their teams," Team Europe general manager Miroslav Satan said. "So, now, the best players from these different federations are combined into one team and let's see what they can do together."
Video: Europe on making World Cup final against Team Canada
Halak is back
No team makes the final of a best-on-best tournament without outstanding goaltending, and Team Europe has gotten a superb performance from Jaroslav Halak. After missing the final month of the NHL regular season and all 11 of the New York Islanders' Stanley Cup Playoff games, Halak has been the rock upon which Team Europe's success has been built.
He made 37 saves Sunday in the win against Team Sweden and has made 142 on 150 shots while playing every minute during Team Europe's first four games. Halak's save percentage of .947 is .001 lower than that of Team Canada's Carey Price, who has faced a much lighter workload.
"He's been our MVP so far, and I'm not surprised," said Team Europe center Frans Nielsen, who played with Halak for the past two seasons with the Islanders before signing as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings on July 1. "The one thing with him is he always gives you a chance to win. He has those saves during a game too that can change the momentum and instead of being down by two, you're only down by one, and then you know he keeps you in the game."
Formula for success
Team Canada brings a 14-game winning streak in best-on-best tournaments into the World Cup final and has outscored its opponents 19-6 during its first four games. It's hard to find any area where Team Canada hasn't excelled; the offense is deep and balanced, the defense is superb, and Price has looked like his pre-injury self.
Team Canada has looked every bit the favorite it was expected to be. To win the World Cup, it has to continue to do what it's been doing: control the puck and limit Team Europe's scoring chances.
"It's pretty easy to go out there and just do what you're told and do your job and know that if we play our way that things usually are going to go our way," forward Steven Stamkos said.
Video: Team Canada knows Halak could be a difference-maker
A little fear can be a good thing
Team Canada dominated Team Europe when they played during the preliminary round. But there are no guarantees in sports, and Team Canada has no intention of overlooking a team that no one expected to get this far.
There's just enough fear that the impossible could happen to keep Team Canada from being overconfident against a team that already has knocked out two teams that were expected to contend for the championship.
"Everybody expects us to win, but everybody thought Sweden was going to win too," forward Joe Thornton said. "Everybody thought the [United] States was going to beat 'em."