Team Europe landed in the United States after a tough week in Canada preparing for the World Cup of Hockey 2016.
Despite lopsided losses in two pre-tournament games against youthful Team North America in Quebec City and Montreal, Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger said he is happy with the way his blended team of players from countries that do not have a team competing in the World Cup is coming together.
Team Europe flew to Washington, D.C., after its 7-4 loss against the team of 23-and-younger United States and Canada players at Bell Centre on Sunday. It will play its final pre-tournament game against Sweden at Verizon Centre on Wednesday. The tournament begins Saturday when Team Europe plays the United States at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
"The integration process was complicated with the Olympic qualification last week," Krueger said Monday. "And the transformation from European ice, where most of the players spent their summers, to the North American game was expedited by the Team North America and its speed and skill, and everything was exposed. So as far as the coach's perspective, if you look at trying to build a team it was an excellent week with lots of lessons, and especially in the last two periods of the game [Sunday] night.
"We could see the game we need to play to be successful at the World Cup and that's why we're doing the preparation, is to find that game and to find that identity. But we have our sleeves rolled up. We still have six days to go until it really matters and we'll use these days properly."
After losing 4-0 at Videotron Centre on Thursday, Team Europe fell behind 5-1 in the first period Sunday. It drew to within 5-4, but was unable to overcome its early deficit.
"We think we were playing the fastest team in the tournament so we were realistic about that from the start," Krueger said. "We're pretty sure that nobody in the tournament will have that quick a lineup and what that does is when you're working on systems and trying to put an on-ice identity in player, you're being tested to the max, which Team North America did. I mean, quite honestly, that was an amazing sight to see these kids in action together. But at the same time, we focused on ourselves and we're very optimistic about the reaction, for us to come back (Sunday) and the way we were beginning to create offence."
Krueger adjusted his lines during the game Sunday, moving Marian Hossa onto Anze Kopitar's line with Tomas Tatar. Mats Zuccarello, who had been playing with Kopitar, formed a line centred by Frans Nielsen with Marian Gaborik. Thomas Vanek entered the lineup in Montreal on a line with Jannik Hansen and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who scored Team Europe's first goal after it was shutout Thursday in Quebec City.
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Forward Tobias Rieder will return against Team Sweden on Wednesday on a line with centre Leon Draisaitl and either Nino Niederreiter or Mikkel Boedker.
Defenceman Christian Ehrhoff will also be in the lineup after sitting out Sunday, when Roman Josi and Zdeno Chara were split up. Krueger rested Dennis Seidenberg on Thursday, but has not decided which defenceman will sit out for the final pre-tournament game.
"We like the lines, and also the defensive pairs, with Josi-Seidenberg, Chara-(Andrej) Sekera, and Streit-(Luca) Sbisa worked quite well, and we'll bring Ehrhoff into one of those slots and just take a look at a little bit of a different look," Krueger said. "But we went out of the game feeling pretty good about the changes we made there."
One of Team Europe's biggest assets is its players' wealth of experience in international competition.
"They've all played hundreds of games for their countries and if you look at all the other lineups, there'd be less experience in that respect," Krueger said. "So we need to make that work. We might not be the quickest team in the tournament but that's going to be our foundation, is to play off of that."
One of the most important aspects of that international experience for Krueger is an understanding of the significance of every result in a concentrated tournament, that "in a three-game group stage, every single minute matters,"
"Well there's a much larger chance for an upset, first of all, in this format," Krueger said. "I have seen this format in my 16 Olympics and World Championships, we used to have a pre-tournament phase of four games which decided which group you went into so I'm really familiar with this kind of pressure right off the hop and the understanding of the dynamics and the dangers of this for the favourites and the opportunities of this for the perceived underdog, so we definitely see ourselves more in an outsider role here for us but I would see that as an opportunity for us, that we're going to try and find a window of opportunity.
"With that short format we, as far as preparation is concerned, you have to be there from Second One, and that's what's going to make this tournament so exciting too is that every single minute of every single game will count. So goals for and against count. Do you get that extra point by bringing the game into overtime or not? All of these factors, every single situation will add up in the end because teams will be tied after three games and they'll have to use the tie-breaking system and so on. So I just think it's the focus on every step. There's no room for slip-ups at all, and that's what I've experienced. And it's a lot of fun."