TORONTO — Don’t blink or you might miss four teams at the World Cup of Hockey.
Unlike the Olympics or world championships, pool play at the World Cup is limited to three games for each team. In under a week, half will be eliminated, and that has ratcheted up the urgency for favorites and underdogs alike.
“Usually in world juniors or world championships — even Olympics — you get more than three games to kind of prove yourself,” U.S. forward Patrick Kane said Thursday. “Three round-robin games, if you don’t play well, you’re going home.”
The U.S., Canada, Czech Republic and Team Europe will play to see which two teams move on from Group A, while Team North America, Sweden, Russia and Finland will do the same in Group B. Thanks to the European integration, there are no lightweight opponents for the top countries to warm up against, leading to the possibility that this is the most competitive hockey tournament in history.
“You shouldn’t be taking a night off; it’s not like an 82-game schedule,” U.S. defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “But it’s compounded even more. The tournament’s going to be deep. You look at the rosters, there’s legit superstars on every team. I don’t think you can sleep on anybody.”
Canada is the clear favorite after going undefeated on the way to gold at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the past two world championships. But Canada’s experienced players are accustomed to a feeling-out process in international competition.
Not this time.
“In the Olympics you never want to stub your toe, but you can have a defeat and learn from it,” Canadian general manager Doug Armstrong said. “In this event, because you’re only playing three games and two teams are moving on, you want to try and make sure that you gain as many points as possible each night and you don’t want to wade into anything slowly.”
The U.S. opens the tournament Saturday against Europe and Canada faces the Czech Republic that night. The Americans and Canadians face off Tuesday in the spotlight game of the preliminary round, and players from those teams know the result of that game could make the difference.
Having so much at stake can only make the quality of play better.
“I think it brings out the best in everyone and that desperation level is probably at the highest it can be,” Canadian captain Sidney Crosby said.
Making it even more desperate is the fact that goal differential could wind up serving as a tiebreaker.
“Let’s say you’re in the middle of game 1 and you’re down two — in a playoff series, it’s about poise, composure and you’ve got to work your way back,” North American co-GM Peter Chiarelli said. “Within a series game to game, you can get off the rails a little bit with your approach and whatnot. Squeeze all that, condense all that into a minute fraction of that and you’ve got the World Cup.”
Europe coach Ralph Krueger believes the format could create a breeding ground for upsets.
“I’m really familiar with this kind of pressure right off the hop and the understanding of the dynamics and the dangers of this as the favorite and the opportunities for the perceived underdogs,” Krueger said. “We look forward to trying to make that work for us.”
The 23-and-under North American team has speed to burn with captain Connor McDavid and four other No. 1 picks, and teams like Finland, the Czech Republic and Europe could surprise everyone because of goaltending.
“Really what levels everything out is goaltending in hockey, and every team seems to have a hot goalie and a goalie that can steal a game,” Armstrong said.
A common theme of media day Thursday was players and coaches explaining that they’re getting better by the day. There isn’t much more time to get ramped up. As Canadian forward John Tavares put it, there’s no room for error so the next best thing is finding a groove.
“Play consistent,” North American defenseman Seth Jones said. “We can’t take a game off; there are only three. It’s only two to move on. You can do the math there, and really see how hard it’s going to be to move on.”
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