Eighty of the world's greatest hockey players - including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Matt Murray - skated at CONSOL Energy Center on Wednesday as Pittsburgh hosted World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament games featuring Team Canada, Team Russia, Team North America and Team Czech Republic. The Czech Republic beat North America 3-2 in the first matchup, while Canada topped Russia 3-2 in overtime in the second. Here are Michelle Crechiolo's takeaways from the last few days.
1. MIDSEASON FORM
I had been wondering about how Matt Murray would recover from the grind of going through a grueling two-month playoff run after playing just 13-career NHL games. And when I talked to him Tuesday, he told me he took two months off of the ice and didn't start skating until a couple of weeks ago to make sure he was properly rested and recovered. He said he feels fresh, and after watching him play Wednesday, he certainly looks it. Murray was tremendous for Team North America through the two periods he played. He was especially strong early as his team settled into the game. He didn't see a huge volume of shots, but the saves he made were quality as Team North America had a rough go of it defensively, surrendering a lot of quality chances and odd-man rushes. Overall he was quick, agile and positionally sound.
2. WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES
At this exact time last year, Murray was heading to London, Ontario for the rookie tournament. Now he is going to Toronto, Ontario for the World Cup as both Team North America's (likely) No. 1 goalie and a Stanley Cup champion. What a difference a year makes. It's quite surreal, to be honest. Murray said one of his goals was trying to play his way onto this team, and he did just that. It's just so impressive to reflect on what he's done so far in his young career.
Video: Murray speaks with the media following a 3-2 loss
3. OVERALL TONE
Part of the reason I was so excited to see Team North America was because they're a young (under-24) talented squad loaded with speed, skill and scoring ability who reeled off 11 goals in their first two exhibition games against Team Europe. Not to mention they have the last two first-overall picks in Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. But they just couldn't get it going offensively today, despite having 44 shots and seven power plays. Head coach Todd McLellan said while his team didn't have as much puck luck, they needed to bear down and bury those chances. Overall, it was a much more physical game and a good learning experience for this team moving forward into tournament play.
4. OVERALL TALENT
It was such a treat to have so much talent in Pittsburgh the last few days. We've all been around the game for a while, but it's still so cool to see someone like Carey Price - the NHL's MVP in 2014-15 - get dressed in the Pens locker room, head onto the ice and put on a show. It was also interesting seeing how the league's future stars handle themselves on and off the ice. Finally, it was a reminder that this city's franchise stars are the best of the best. They both stood out on their respective teams, on and off the ice. For example, in a locker room filled with superstars, Crosby was still the person all of the media wanted to talk to. Granted, I know it's partly because it's Pittsburgh, but still - it was pretty funny to see everyone gather around his stall and wait for him to come off the ice while players like John Tavares and Steven Stamkos walked in and out without being bothered. Seeing him and Malkin be such leaders on groups filled with stars was a reminder how lucky this town is to have these players on their NHL team.
5. CROSBY VS. MALKIN
We've seen Crosby and Malkin play each other a number of times, but never in their own arena. And it was so cool to see the support from their second homes as they represented the countries where they'd grown up. Both players received loud, lengthy cheers as they were introduced. Once play began, both were sharp. Crosby was a factor right away, setting up linemate Patrice Bergeron for a beautiful goal. Malkin took a little longer to get going, but once he did he was a force for a Russian squad that produced some impressive offensive zone time. He later got an assist of his own on Alex Ovechkin's 5-on-3 goal. They spent a lot of time going head-to-head, and both were complimentary of each other after the game.
Malkin on their matchup: "We played a lot against each other. He's unbelievable. He's tough on the boards. He's protecting the puck every time. It's a hard battle against him, but I liked how I played too. More confidence right now, more power and pure game. It was a slow start against the Czechs, but now I think it's better."
Crosby on their faceoff battles: "I checked the replay on a couple. He was sideways on a couple. I don't know who he learned that from, but he was really good there tonight. He was beating me a lot on his forehand. I'll have to look at that and make sure I improve."