By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Hosts Canada, the two-time reigning Olympic champions who are deep in both tradition and talent, were always expected to reach this week's World Cup of Hockey final.
Their opponent, Team Europe, a gimmicky squad of players from smaller European hockey playing nations, were not even expected to advance beyond the preliminary round.
What it means is a confounding but intriguing best-of-three final starting on Tuesday with hot favorites Canada taking on the longest of tournament longshots.
At one end of the ice will stand Canada, the Goliath of the hockey world, while a group of Davids without a country, flag or anthem and whose coach's day job is chairman of Premiership club Southampton FC will stand at the other.
"Well, personally, first and foremost, just so pleased that these peripheral countries in the world of hockey have had an opportunity to compete with the best in the world for the first time in their life and to truly believe in being competitive," said Team Europe coach Ralph Krueger.
"That's not possible when these players show up alone at tournaments. They're forever fighting just to get to Olympic Games, forget about competing for anything at them."
Russia, Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden, who Team Europe knocked out with a shock overtime semi-final win, have all gone home leaving Krueger's crew from Slovenia, Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Slovakia, Austria and France playing for a trophy they would never normally get close to hoisting.
Team Europe, created solely for the 2016 World Cup in a bid to avoid lopsided results that would likely have occurred had the next best European team been included, have defied the odds.
But while more competitive games were expected as a result of the new format few outside Team Europe's locker room dared to dream they could reach the final.
"And off we go to finals, who would have thought? Us. Just us. Literally just us," Team Europe's German defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said on Twitter.
In fact, Team Europe may be a one-and-done outfit with the NHL and NHL Players' Association, who jointly operate the World Cup, considering a return to more traditional format of eight countries at the next tournament in 2020.
"Because we have no past and we have no future, we are really capable of being in the now," said Krueger. "It's the opportunity in this that we've tapped into."
How much farther that inspiration can carry Team Europe, whose only blemish in four games was a 4-1 preliminary round loss to Canada, could prove difficult against the hosts.
Undefeated Canada, led once again by an inspired Sidney Crosby, has operated with ruthless focus having outscored their opponents 19-6 en route to the final
The tournament's top five scorers all wear the Maple Leaf with Crosby topping the table with seven points on three goals and four assists.
However, Canada coach Mike Babcock, who steered Canada to gold medals at the Vancouver and Sochi Olympics will not be under-estimating the Euros.
"They've got a good-looking team. That's why you play these games," said Babcock. "All the experts can predict what they want, but you got to play the games and decide."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)