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Team North America

Team North America wise beyond its years

Shows poise, maturity in World Cup win over Team Finland

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- The most impressive part wasn't the speed, the skill or even the score.

It was the professionalism, the maturity.

Team North America is made up of players 23 and younger from Canada and the United States. It was playing its first game of the preliminary round in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre on Sunday, and it was facing Team Finland, a proud national team that had won four medals, more than any other country, since the NHL started participating in the Olympics in 1998.

The so-called kids not only played well with the puck, zipping it up the ice, peppering goaltender Pekka Rinne, they played well without it, coming back hard, forcing turnovers. They not only defeated Team Finland, they dominated Team Finland in a 4-1 game that could have been even more lopsided.

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

And when it was over, they didn't sound excited, didn't sound surprised. They looked ahead to their next game against Team Russia on Monday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).

"We're not just here to win the first one against Finland," Team North America captain Connor McDavid said. "We want to keep going. It's a good start for us, but we're playing a very, very good team tomorrow and we'll have to be ready. We'll enjoy this one for however long and then we'll start looking at some video and trying to build our game even more. I think we definitely played a good game tonight, but there's still areas to improve, and we're going to try and do that."

Suddenly the World Cup format, criticized as contrived, seems inspired. The NHL and the NHL Players' Association wanted to make the tournament more competitive and include more of the best players. So instead of inviting two weaker countries as the seventh and eighth teams, they created two new teams to fill out the field.

They created Team Europe, comprised of European players from outside the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden, and Team North America. Both are 1-0-0. Team Europe defeated Team USA 3-0 on Saturday. Now this.

Team Europe has veterans. But so does Team North America in a sense. These aren't your typical young players. These are elite young players who have been stars for years at various levels, including the NHL.

Video: NAT@FIN: MacKinnon slips rebound into the net in 2nd

"They've been in the limelight, they've been in the spotlight, their whole careers," Team North America coach Todd McLellan said. "Whether it's from junior, college, wherever it is, they're very high draft picks. The media's been around them a lot. They've been around fans. I think they understand the whole presentation of the game itself and how to behave. When you mix their skill level in and their ability to come together as a group, we now have a team."

It's a hell of a team.

Team Canada is the team to beat in this tournament; Team North America is the team to watch. Oh, of course, Team Canada is entertaining with all of its talent. But it's a relentless machine, and we've seen it before. Team North America is fun and fast and furious, and we have never seen anything like it before and might not see it, or at least some elements of it, ever again.

In the first period Sunday, Team North America put out a power play that included McDavid, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft; Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 Draft; and Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 Draft. Matthews took a pass from McDavid, eluded a defender along the left-wing boards, drove to the net and shot. Eichel jammed in a rebound.

Eichel from Matthews and McDavid.

Let that sink in, and remember that Eichel and Matthews are American and McDavid is Canadian. They will play against each other in the NHL and internationally in the future. Team North America co-general manager Stan Bowman talked about the unique opportunity to bring that trio together before the tournament began.\

Video: NAT@FIN: Gaudreau deflects Parayko's shot past Rinne

"The one interesting thing is when you have McDavid, Matthews and Eichel," Bowman said. "They'll never play on the same team ever again. They're all franchise players, and you can't afford to have three franchise players [on one team in the NHL]. … Twenty years from now, they're all going to be star, star players. The fact they all got to play together in this one short tournament, I think that's going to be fun to watch to see how this plays out."

Team North America could have been ahead by more than 1-0 after the first. It put a puck on the goal line, laid another one in the crease, hit a goal post and had a goal disallowed. The second period ended 4-0. Johnny Gaudreau scored on a leaping, spinning deflection. Jonathan Drouin scored at the end of a sequence that looked like a power play, Team North America playing with the puck, Team Finland standing still. Nathan MacKinnon jammed in a rebound.

It wasn't until late in the third period that Team Finland got on the board. Team North America outshot Team Finland 43-25, including 30-13 over the last two periods.

Video: NAT@FIN: Drouin crashes net, slides home a rebound

"I was impressed by that team," Rinne said. "They really took it to us and showed their individual skill, but also as a team they were extremely dangerous. But … Not going to take anything away from them, but I thought that we weren't ready to go tonight."

Note to Team Russia and everyone else: Don't make the same mistake.

"We're here to play," Gaudreau said. "Hopefully teams don't take us lightly. We're a fast, skilled team, and hopefully we can keep proving to people we belong here."

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