First place in Group A at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 will be decided at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday when Team Europe and Team Canada play their final preliminary-round game (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).
Each team has won its first two games to clinch a berth in the semifinals. Team Canada has outscored Team Czech Republic and Team USA by a combined score of 10-2. Team Europe opened the tournament by surprising Team USA 3-0, then defeated Team Czech Republic 3-2 in overtime.
The winner will play its semifinal game against the second-place finisher in Group B. The loser has to play the Group B winner.
Here are reasons for optimism for Team Europe and Team Canada:
1. Playing loose:
With a berth in the semifinals already assured, there's no pressure on Team Europe to win. After all, when you've already vastly exceeded expectations and are playing for position against the tournament favorite, you're already playing with house money.
That doesn't mean Team Europe doesn't want to win its third straight in the preliminary round.
"They're probably the favorite in the tournament and all the pressure's going to be on them," forward Nino Niederreiter said of Team Canada. "At the same time, we've won two in a row and we have to make sure we keep focused and see ourselves still as the underdog. I feel like we still are and we have to focus on the little details and defend solidly, then everything else will happen."
2. Know your opponent:
Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger is more than a little familiar with Team Canada coach Mike Babcock and his strategies: He served as a consultant to Babcock and Team Canada for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, when Canada won gold.
"To go up against Mike [on Wednesday] will be a lot of fun," said Krueger, who was born in Canada. "We communicated so much in that year around Sochi, and I know a lot of what's going on inside that room. It's difficult to beat and break that, but we will try."
3. Living up to the hype:
Team Canada has heard almost since the day the World Cup was announced that it was the favorite to win it all. However, through two games there's been no indication that being the favorite has been a burden. Team Canada dominated the Czech Republic in its opener and scored four unanswered goals in its 4-2 victory against Team USA on Tuesday. In all, eight players have scored at least one of Team Canada's 10 goals.
The two wins haven't left Babcock overconfident.
"We weren't as good as we're capable of being tonight," he said after the win against Team USA.
4. Making an impression:
Babcock undoubtedly wants to win; a victory would likely let Team Canada avoid a semifinal game against Team Sweden. But he's also giving some of his players a chance to show what they can do. Babcock said goaltender Corey Crawford, who backed up Carey Price in each of the first two games, will see his first action of the tournament in the preliminary-round finale, with Braden Holtby dressing for the first time and serving as backup. Center Claude Giroux and defenseman Jake Muzzin are also expected to play after being healthy scratches for the first two games.
Crawford isn't likely to unseat Price as the starter, but Giroux and Muzzin, assuming they dress, will be trying to show Babcock that they're worthy of getting to play in the next round.