No one who watched Team Europe's first two pre-tourney games in the run up to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey would have given that squad much of a chance to advance to the semifinals, let alone the final. Europe was outskated and outplayed in a pair of lopsided losses to Team North America, and coach Ralph Krueger's cobbled together crew from a variety of small European countries looked old and slow in the process.
But Krueger's team coalesced over the last couple of weeks, crushing Sweden in its final exhibition outing and surprising Team USA in its round robin opener last weekend. This afternoon in Toronto, Team Europe stunned Sweden 3-2 to advance to the World Cup final series (a best-of-three set) against Canada.
Tomas Tatar's overtime tally - his second goal of the game - came at 3:43 of the extra session. Both of Tatar's goals came after Sweden netminder Henrik Lundqvist made the initial save, only to have the Slovakian speedster beat him by getting to his own rebound.
"Many people would look at our average age of over 30 and they would say we've run out of gas here at this point in September," says Krueger. "We've played our seventh game now with a lineup that's been fighting hard for every point, and I think that the experience of the group expedited the process for us as coaches.
"It was amazing how in the adversity of the [North America] kids whipping us 9-1 after four periods we were able to make adjustments that made sense … We began with a very simple concept with the puck actually. It's amazing after you're down 9-1, we didn't speak about defense; we spoke about puck management. We learned that, and built our defense on the heels of that."
Sunday's game wasn't the most exciting game ever played, but it was a well-played and well-coached game. Time and space was at a premium most of the afternoon, and high quality scoring chances were difficult to come by at both ends of the ice.
After a scoreless first frame, the two teams traded goals in the second and third periods.
Nicklas Backstrom staked Sweden to a 1-0 lead at 2:31 of the middle period. Backstrom was in perfect position - near the top of the paint at the back door - to deposit the rebound of an Anton Stralman shot behind Europe goaltender Jaroslav Halak for the first goal of the game.
With 3:33 left in the second, Europe pulled even. Defenseman Christian Ehrhoff carried below the Sweden goal line, then put a pass to the crowded goalmouth for Marian Gaborik. Gaborik got very little on his shot, but it trickled through Lundqvist and wobbled over the goal line to make it a 1-1 game.
Tatar's first goal of the game staked Europe to its first lead of the game just a dozen seconds into the third period. Anders Sekara pulled the puck off the wall in neutral ice and fed Tatar, as he entered the Sweden zone. Tatar took a shot from the high slot, and Lundqvist scissor-handed it with his catching glove while also losing his footing. The speedy Tatar got to the rebound first and chipped it over the prone Lundqvist for a 2-1 Europe lead.
Sweden patiently went about trying to manufacture the tying marker, but most of its best chances were just wide of the mark. Ten of Sweden's 20 missed shots came in the third period. Sweden may have been guilty of putting too fine a point on it with those misses; Europe was effective at having bodies in front and was adept at getting to rebounds and loose pucks in that area of the ice.
The Swedes finally managed to even the score late in the third. On a sustained offensive zone shift, Erik Karlsson floated a shot toward the net. The puck appeared to just glance off the shin pad of Europe defenseman Roman Josi, and it eluded Halak to make it a 2-2 game with 4:32 remaining in the third.
Less than half a minute before Tatar won it, Sweden had a two-on-one rush opportunity in overtime, but Halak made the save on Backstrom's shot from the right circle.
Tatar carried into Sweden ice along the right wing wall. Anze Kopitar rolled the puck around behind the Sweden cage, and Lundqvist wasn't able to stop it with his stick. The disc rolled around to Mats Zuccarello at the left half wall. Zucaraello quickly spotted Tatar with time and space at the back door, and threaded a pass across to him. Lundqvist stopped Tatar, but the puck glanced back to Tatar, hit his skate blade and went into the net. Sweden challenged the call on the ice, alleging a kicking motion from Tatar, but the call on the ice was upheld.
With consecutive overtime losses in its last two games, Sweden is going home. Meanwhile, the Team Europe entry - a team with no national anthem and no natural fan base - moves on to meet Canada in the final starting Tuesday night.
"Tomas stepping up with his spirit today and those two goals, really -- he created that whole OT goal," says Krueger. "When you see the fight on the wall against those boys that were a lot bigger than him, that's where it all was initiated. It ends up in the net, and we just continually found ways to do that, and that's the beauty of this team."