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End-to-end action at Air Canada Centre

Fans biggest winners in entertaining game between Team North America, Team Sweden

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- If you had paid $1,000 for your ticket into Air Canada Centre on Wednesday afternoon, you'd have got a bargain.

It wasn't a hockey game played between Team North America and Team Sweden in their World Cup of Hockey 2016 matinee. It was the Cirque du Soleil. It was the best rock concert you'd ever attended. It was a demolition derby and a Formula One race. It was "Star Wars" before the movie became a brand.

It was all of those things, and more, wrapped into one glorious, entertaining spectacle.

Goals. Highlight-reel goals. Saves, some of them bordering on the impossible. A penalty shot. Overtime. A winning goal that was so brilliant you needed sunglasses to watch it.

By the time the players and spectators caught their breath two hours and 42 minutes after the first puck had been dropped, Team North America was a 4-3 overtime winner, and Team Sweden had locked up a berth in the semifinals.

The ice still was wet when Team North America was up 2-0, a spectacular opening goal by Auston Matthews at 30 seconds and a second goal scored by Vincent Trocheck 65 seconds later sandwiching a penalty shot awarded to Johnny Gaudreau.

Video: NAT@SWE: Matthews scores 30 seconds into game

Team Sweden goaltender Henrik Lundqvist saw Gaudreau's attempt sail high and wide, but The King, as Lundqvist is known, would be worthy on this day of the three crowns on his chest and the one on his head.

Lundqvist made 45 saves, many of them ridiculous stops. Combined with his 2-0 shutout against Team Finland on Tuesday, the goalie made saves on 81 of 85 shots over 24 hours for a glittering .953 save percentage.

If Team North America won the game and Team Sweden its group, the real winner on this afternoon was anyone who witnessed 64 minutes and 11 seconds of unforgettable hockey. Better still if you recorded the game to watch it again and again, because a single viewing would not reveal all that was beautiful about it -- raw speed, magnificent skill, exquisite playmaking, stupendous goaltending at each end of the ice.

Start your viewing with Nathan MacKinnon's winning goal, as good as anything up a magician's sleeve that ends with a delicate backhand flip. Rewind to Matthew's mind-boggling goal, which began with him puck-handling on his knees.

And then feast on everything in between.

Even the players were impressed.

"It was exciting," said Gaudreau, who swiftly went forehand-backhand so often on his first-period breakaway goal that the white tape on his stick blade was almost black by the end. "Up and down the ice the whole game -- power plays, penalty kills … it was a great game by both teams. It was an exciting game to play, so I'm sure it was an exciting game to watch."

Video: NAT@SWE: Speedy Gaudreau scores on breakaway

In full agreement was Team North America goalie John Gibson, who made a handful of unthinkable saves among his 35 on 38 Team Sweden shots.

"You ask anybody and they'll say it was fun to be a part of," said Gibson, who couldn't remember ever being up 2-0 in a game before he'd touched a single puck. "The fans were awesome, it was back and forth, overtime, you had basically everything you could ask for."

Team Sweden wasn't complaining with the result, clawing back into what seemed destined to be a blowout -- down 2-0 before fans sat in their seats, trailing 11-1 in shots before stirring from its slumber and managed to slow the express train in white jerseys.

The game didn't need an opening faceoff as much as the racetrack gate that releases thoroughbreds, Team North America's speed overwhelming Team Sweden in the game's first 95 seconds.

Stunned by two quick goals and almost a third, Team Sweden gave itself a shake, Air Canada Centre rocking in support of its thoroughly thrilling opponent.

"Basically, it couldn't get any worse," said forward Filip Forsberg, whose goal 8:24 into the first period pulled Team Sweden to within one. "Down 2-0, and it could have been 4-0 if we were unlucky. After that, we settled down. We knew we were going to be patient and keep working, and I think we did a really good job of that."

Video: NAT@SWE: Forsberg beats Gibson blocker side

Said defenseman Erik Karlsson: "Despite the first two minutes, it was great. They caught us on our heels pretty quick, but I think it was good for us to be down right away so we had to realize we had to play a better game in order to give ourselves a chance to win. At the end of the game, we put ourselves in that position."

Hugely popular, generously gifted Team North America was not, Karlsson said, better than what Team Sweden expected.

"No, not at all," he said. "They're a great team, they have a lot of skill, and they're playing fearless. I remember being younger, not really realizing what's at stake. Being a nation, you consider those things a little bit more, that's why they're probably flying a little bit more, looking a little bit better than most teams because they're playing a little bit reckless, which has been their strength. That's how they have to play to win games.

"I think it was an entertaining game. You could feel there was a lot on the line, and it really gave us a test as a team. At the end of the day, we came away with the point we needed to win the group. In the overtime, their goalie made some great saves and they got a lucky bounce and won the game. We won the group, and that's what we're going to be happy about, but at the same time, it made us realize we'll have to play a lot better in order to move on next week."

"It was definitely exciting hockey," said Connor McDavid, who had an assist and took five of Team North America's 49 shots. "You're going to get that when you play best on best."

Fans filed out of the arena thunderstruck, exhausted by what they'd just seen -- a game that set an absurdly high bar for everything that will follow it.

And then there was this thought:

This still was the preliminary round.

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