The World Cup of Hockey is now officially set to commence on Saturday, September 17th with all games played over the upcoming two weeks at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Who’s going to win? Well that’s pretty easy, Canada. They have the best overall team and the home ice.
But you still have to play the games and if the pre tournament action is any indication, then this is going to be one heck of an event. All eight teams won at least one time in their three World Cup tune-ups. Some of the games were downright played at NHL playoff intensity level, with USA-Canada on Friday night being the most noteworthy. The Americans played a strong physical game, received excellent goaltending from Jonathan Quick, and took advantage of a rusty Carey Price to win, 4-2. The Canadians then returned the favor the next night in Ottawa, winning 5-3 (Quick and Price did not play).
Canada then needed overtime to defeat the Russians, 3-2, on Wednesday night to finish 2-1. USA, playing at the Verizon Center on Tuesday evening, raced out a 3-0 lead that could’ve been five or six zip if not for Finland goalie Pekka Rinne, before hanging on to a 3-2 victory.
Both the USA and Canada are in group A with Team Europe, who pan caked Sweden, 6-2, at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night, and the Czech Republic, who knocked off the North American speedsters on Wednesday afternoon in the first of a doubleheader at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
Group B consists of Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the North Americans (USA and Canadian players aged 23 and under).
The top two squads in each group will advance to the semifinals where there will be a single elimination round. The top team in group A will play the runner up in group B while the first place team in group B gets the runner up in group A.
So there is a scenario where USA and Canada could meet in the finals, with the World Cup of Hockey being decided in a best of three games matchup.
Bottom line, this is going to be some really exciting hockey to watch.
Now, without further adieu, here are my picks for each group.
First place: Russia. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Evgeny Kuznetsov lead a talented forward group that is thin on the blue line. But they have some great goaltending that starts with Sergei Bobrovksy. If “Bob” gets hurt or struggles, then Semyon Varlamov is more than capable of coming in and shutting the door. This group sets up well for the Russians. They are bigger up front than the other three squads and I don’t see any of the other three teams having a blue line that can match that offensive talent.
Where it could go wrong for Russia: I mentioned their blue line, but to me, the biggest question mark with this squad is the coaching. Going back to 1980, when Viktor Tikhonov yanked Vladislav Tretiak in net after one period in Lake Placid, we’ve seen so many head scratching coaching decisions from this federation. In the pre tournament action, the Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Kucherov line was outstanding against the Czechs, but coach Oleg Znarok moved Kuzy off of the top line and to a wing, at times, in Wednesday’s game against the Canadians. Anyone who watched the NHL last season knows that Kuzy is a sensational playmaker with the puck. Putting him in position on the wall where he will rely on others to give him the puck coming out of their own zone makes very little sense.
Second place: Sweden. Many of the so-called experts are going with Sweden to win it all, but I watched the Swedes on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center and I was not impressed. Yes, they have a very talented and mobile defense led by Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson, but that whole blue line was a turnover machine, along with young forwards such as Filip Forsberg, in their loss to Team Europe. Henrik Lundqvist didn’t get much help in front of him and he wasn’t very good either in net. He’s 34. Up front, the coaching staff seems to rely heavily on the Sedin-Sedin-Eriksson line. They will try to cycle you to death. Nicklas Backstrom is a rock up the middle for Sweden and I don’t think he’ll get kicked out of this tournament for using ZYRTEC like we saw in the Sochi Olympics in 2014. That galactic screw up has left several in the NHL with a bad taste in their mouths over how that whole silliness went down. The NHL is controlling this event, so I don’t think we’ll see something stupid like that in this tournament, but Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly did tell me on Wednesday that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is involved with this tournament. Sweden has the talent to come close to Canada, but I’m not seeing it and there are legitimate concerns about King Henrik in the cage (cue Coldplay’s Viva La Vida).
Where it could go wrong for Sweden: In addition to concerns about Hank in net and the blue line turnovers, the defense is not configured to clear the front of their own net. If I’m coaching in group B I’m sending a steady diet of players to the top of the circle on the Swedes and daring them to move my forwards out of there. I also don’t like the fact that they left Marcus Johansson off of the roster. Marcus can do so many things in the lineup yet they excluded him and took players such as Jakob Silverberg, Mikael Backlund, and Carl Soderberg who don’t have the experience or versatility that Jojo brings. Big mistake Sweden, big mistake.
As for Finland and North America, I still like both of these squads despite not picking them for the semifinals. Finland could squeeze in if Rinne plays at the top of his game, he’s that good and big in the cage. North America has some really fun and fast players. If Coach Todd McLellan gets his players to play smart and not turn the puck over, then they could sneak in, especially if Stanley Cup Champion Matt Murray continues to play well in net.
First Place: Canada. They have the best roster, hands down, in this tournament. They will be playing at home. They are experienced having won gold in both Vancouver and Sochi. They have an excellent coaching staff, led by Mike Babcock. It’s almost a given that they will win this event.
Where it could go wrong for Canada: They’ll make the semifinals, and that is where they are most vulnerable if they run into a super hot goalie. But in a three game set, in either the preliminary round or in the finals, they are just too deep to be beaten. I give the Americans the best chance to take them down in the finals, but they will have to have Jonathan Quick pull a Mike Richter in net.
Second Place: USA. The American roster has been much maligned by several of the supposed experts in the media, but I’m not buying it. This club, put together by Kings GM Dean Lombardi, is built perfectly for this type of tournament on an NHL sized rink. They have great goaltending, led by Quick, a very mobile and strong two way defense, led by John Carlson and Ryan McDonagh, and a set of forwards that can hit and grind out goals with players like team captain Joe Pavelski and T.J. Oshie. They also have some top notch skilled snipers like Patrick Kane and Zach Parise. John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan are coaching this team and both have won Stanley Cups for a reason. Torts may not have shown any bench boss magic over an 82 game season in awhile, but a short tournament like this is right up his alley.
Where it could go wrong for USA: They could struggle to score goals if they don’t crash the net. Europe has a “can get really hot” goalie in Jaroslav Halak and the Czechs will start Michal Neuvirth, who has been in the zone in the cage recently, as well. In order to beat those guys, USA must get lots of traffic.
As for the Czechs and Europe, they are long shots to advance, but if any could do it, my money would be on Europe. While they are slow on the back end with the likes of the chippy Zdeno Chara, they are coached well by Ralph Krueger, who was a joy to cover on Wednesday night and was an advisor on the coaching staff for the victorious Canadian team in Sochi. Europe has one of the best forwards in the NHL in Anze Kopitar along with some other snipers like Tomas Vanek and the young Oilers forward, Leon Draisaitl, who had a hat trick at the Verizon Center against King Henrik.
Like I said earlier, this is going to be some intense hockey. The tournament starts at 3:30 pm on Saturday afternoon with USA taking on Europe on ESPN2. Canada plays the Czechs at 8 pm on ESPN News.