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World Cup of Hockey

Team North America searching for identity

Young group needs to be more than speed, skill to have success at World Cup

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- There are blueprints for the other teams, systems, plans and identities. They know who they are and what they have to do, both as players in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 and elsewhere, for their NHL teams or KHL teams or wherever they play. That's not necessarily the case for Team North America, a team both learning and playing on the fly.

The players and coaching staff have had, so far, three games and a half dozen practices to figure it out. But they're not quite there, as evidenced by the team's loss to Team Czech Republic on Wednesday, after two wins over Team Europe.

It was, as forwards Auston Matthews and Johnny Gaudreau each put it, "a wake-up call" for Team North America.

The problem is there's not much time to wake up. Team Finland, no easy opponent, beckons on Sunday at Air Canada Centre in Toronto (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).

Video: Team North America prepares to take on Group B

So what is this team, beyond the easy answer of a young, fast, skilled group? What does it have to offer in this tournament? And will it be able to forge the identity it needs before it's time to go home?

There are challenges in all of that, many of them.

Coach Todd McLellan listed them, from "just determining the pecking order within the locker room, who's the Alpha and who's going to be the followers" to "trying to figure out combinations of players, whether it's linemates, two of them, pairs."

And then, he said, there's the mindset, the identity, the focus of a group that has never once played together before as a team, never shared much of anything.

"We're a fast, exciting team one way, and we can be pretty exciting going the other way," McLellan said. "So just getting them to understand the risk-reward part of it is going to become real important as the tournament wears on, if we can limit the risk. If we're giving up 10 risky plays a night, if we can take that down to seven or eight, that will give us a much better chance of winning. So, a lot of challenges.

"Short-term, we have to pick our poison as a staff, where do we want to go and what do we want to focus on? But I think our group has done a good job in coming together to this point."

In some sense, Team North America has already found itself. It happened early, at least according to forward Jack Eichel, when the team was on the phone with McLellan, when he explained how the team was going to play as a team, how it was going to be.

In some sense, it still hasn't happened.

But most of the players on Team North America believe that the 3-2 loss to Team Czech Republic in its final pretournament game Wednesday will help them as the World Cup goes on, setting expectations where they need to be. There is, perhaps, a different level Team North America needs to reach, not just relying on that team speed and skill, if it hopes to hang around for any length of time.

"I think as we go on here, playing against Finland, I think that game against Czech really will help us out," forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. "We want to use our speed and our skill to our advantage. But at the same time we don't want to be reckless out there. You give up a couple two-on-ones against teams like this and it's costly."

And, as defenseman Aaron Ekblad said, that can't be all that Team North America is.

"Obviously the skill is our team identity, big time, skill and speed," he said. "But we also want to be known as a hard defensive team to play against. We want to take care of our neutral zone, take care of our D zone and make it very hard for teams to even get a chance at our goalie, let alone score."

Video: CZE@NAT: Matthews taps in rebound to even game at 2

That game against Team Czech Republic could, in the end, be a turning point. It was Team North America's first chance against the kind of team that they are not, against a team that's organized, that, as Nugent-Hopkins said, has "been together for so long and they have their systems in place." That's unlike Team Europe which, in the end, is in much the same boat as Team North America, except with more experience.

But whether or not an identity is forged, whether or not Team North America knows what it is and can be, it might not matter. The games that count are coming, and the team will step out on the ice, whether it's ready or not.

"We really don't have too much time to figure it out," Nugent-Hopkins warned. "We've just got to jump into it. But I think guys have been around long enough where we should be able to figure it out pretty quick - I think the off-ice stuff helps us. We've definitely come together as a team off the ice. I think it should help us when we get out there on Sunday."

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