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Youth Prevails in Game for the Ages

MacKinnon's overtime tally enables North America to overcome Sweden and elimination in a remarkable and memorable World Cup thriller

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / Monumental Sports Network

Youth isn't always wasted on the young.

Team North America, a temporarily cobbled together group of young upstarts with the common traits of wheels, talent, birthdates in the last 23 years and birthplaces on this continent, had already seized the spotlight at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey before Wednesday afternoon's unforgettable game against Team Sweden. But when Nathan MacKinnon delivered a 4-3 victory with his dazzling deke and top shelf backhand shot in the final minute of overtime, the North Americans remained alive in the tournament. 

Youth isn't always wasted on the young.

Team North America, a temporarily cobbled together group of young upstarts with the common traits of wheels, talent, birthdates in the last 23 years and birthplaces on this continent, had already seized the spotlight at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey before Wednesday afternoon's unforgettable game against Team Sweden. But when Nathan MacKinnon delivered a 4-3 victory with his dazzling deke and top shelf backhand shot in the final minute of overtime, the North Americans remained alive in the tournament. 

"I was pretty tired, actually," says MacKinnon in recounting his game-winner. "That was my first thought when I got the puck. It was in my feet, so I didn't want to mess that up. I was just kind of dribbling the puck, then I saw [Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist's] stick come up for a pokecheck. I managed to deke that and get it up. It was fun."

North America isn't the favorite; it needs help - in the form of a Finland win over Russia on Thursday - to advance to the semifinals and to ensure we haven't seen the last of this electrifying bunch of shooting stars. 

In the other sense of the word, North America is the favorite. Fans, media and those close to the game have fallen hard for these guys, right from the start of the pre-tournament games when the kids climbed all over the older and and more plodding Team Europe entry. 

MacKinnon's overtime goal supplied a coda as stunning as the start of Wednesday's contest.

On the first shift of the game, the North Americans drew a penalty on Team Sweden, and Auston Matthews - the new darling of Toronto hockey - scored to give North America a quick and early 1-0 lead a mere 30 seconds after the game's opening puck drop.

The kids weren't content to rest on that early laurel. Twenty-six seconds after Matthews victimized Lundqvist, North America's Johnny Gaudreau was hampered on a breakaway - one of several odd-man rushes against Sweden in the first - earning a penalty shot. Gaudreau's bid to make it a 2-0 game went wide, but the North Americans weren't to be denied. 

Vincent Trocheck scored at 1:35 of the first to give North America a 2-0 lead. For the first five minutes or so, Sweden seemed thoroughly unprepared for the speed and the verve with which the youthful North Americans started the game. 

"We came out really flat there at the beginning," admits Team Sweden center Nicklas Backstrom. "We weren't there at all. And they came out really hard. But at the same time, the game is 60 minutes and we worked ourselves into the game again."

With Trocheck's tally, the North Americans had scored more goals against Sweden in 95 seconds than Team Russia and Team Finland had managed to score against the Swedes in 120 combined minutes.

Swedish defenseman Erik Karlsson was deemed guilty of interfering with Connor McDavid at 3:20, giving North America another opportunity to expand its early lead. The Swedes finally settled in and settled down, killing off the power play and setting about getting their legs and their bearings.

Just ahead of the midpoint of the first, Filip Forsberg put Sweden on the board with a rush goal. Forsberg buzzed a shot past the right ear of North America netminder John Gibson, who appeared to get a small piece of the shot with his catching glove. 

Gaudreau restored North America's two-goal advantage at 13:57, tucking the puck behind Lundqvist from just outside the paint at the left post.

North America killed off a pair of Sweden power plays in the latter half of the frame, but Backstrom struck for the Swedes just seconds after the second of those power plays expired. Morgan Rielly blocked Forsberg's shot from the left circle, but the puck caromed right to Backstrom on the opposite side and he fired a slapper into the cage before Gibson could sufficiently cover that side of the net.

"I feel like after a couple of minutes, we toughened up a bit and played more physical," says Backstrom. "And we got involved in the game a little better; that's why we got the goal there, too, the first and second [goals]. That was a big part of why we came back. And we talked about staying patient, even if they were up 2-0. We were trying to work ourselves into the game, and it worked." 

The middle period was scoreless, but it wasn't at all boring. The two teams combined for 58 shot attempts and 32 shots on net in the middle 20 minutes, including 21 shots on net from the North Americans. Lundqvist left a few big rebounds early in the game, but the NHL's most consistent goalie of the last decade was at his vintage best in the second. He thwarted MacKinnon's point blank shot from the slot early in the period and made a similarly strong stop on Mark Scheifele just past the midpoint of the period, keeping the Swedes within striking distance.

At the other end of the ice, Gibson was also excellent. He denied a fusillade of Swedish shots early in the second, halting four of them in a span of 10 seconds, including three off the stick of Daniel Sedin.

Unable to add to their one-goal lead with a pair of late power-play chances in the second, North America nursed their 3-2 lead into the third. But Sweden's Patrik Berglund tied it at 6:50 on a nifty drive-by deflection of Karlsson's right point blast. 

The two teams traded chances and near misses over the remainder of regulation, and Gibson and North America killed off a pair of late Swedish power plays, too. That set the stage for a remarkable overtime session.

There were 11 shot attempts in the extra session. Lundqvist stopped Gaudreau before the overtime was even 10 seconds old. He made a brilliant save on Connor McDavid's back-door, top-of-the-paint attempt to convert a laser-sharp pass from Mark Scheifele in the right wing corner. Seconds before MacKinnon's game-winner, Gibson kept North America's semifinal hopes alive with a breakaway save on Daniel Sedin. 

"It's entertaining," says Backstrom. "It was a quick game, right from the start. It's fun. I have to say they're a great team and they're very talented. I mean, they're just flying out there. It's a lot of fun to play those games." 

"[North America assistant coach] Dave Tippett has coached more games probably than the rest of our staff put together," says North America coach Todd McLellan. "And we have coaches that have been around for a while. But we became fans. I was standing on the bench yelling, 'No! No! No!' and then, 'Go! Go! Go!' 

"It was just going back and forth. The energy in the building, the passion of the fans and the players. I've seen a lot of excited players, but that bench was very excited. It was a lot of fun."

It was, indeed. And now we wait, to see if there will be more fun, or if North America will bow out of this tourney with a single one-goal loss to the Russians as its only blemish. 
 

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