By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) – Team Europe extended their unthinkable run at the World Cup of Hockey with a stunning 3-2 overtime win over favored Sweden on Sunday to earn a surprise berth in the best-of three final against hosts Canada.
The ragtag group of players from eight different countries were the popular pick to finish last out of the eight teams but that did not keep them from pulling off the tournament’s biggest upset over a Swedish team that won silver at the 2014 Olympics.
“Nobody thought back then we would make it to the semi-finals and we did it. Nobody thought we could make it to the finals and we did it,” said Team Europe’s Slovenian captain Anze Kopitar.
Team Europe were 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 after Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic been included.
With no national anthem and dismissed as too old and slow to make any noise when the World Cup began, few expected the mix of European players to find the type of chemistry that is usually integral to achieving success in a two-week tournament.
But the squad mostly cruised through the preliminary round, where they finished runner-up to tournament favorite Canada in Group A, and were not intimidated in the semi-final when they came up against a formidable Swedish defense.
“Everybody thought that having eight different countries was going to be the Achilles that we had no chance to play here,” Team Europe head coach Ralph Krueger told reporters.
“But these are all National Hockey League players. We have a locker room full of guys who had to fight to get here and fight to stay.”
Slovakia forward Tomas Tartar scored the winner moments after Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist made a pad save on his initial shot from in close. The rebound caromed off Tartar’s skate and into the net less than four minutes into overtime.
The Slovakian forward’s goal stood up after a short review concluded he did not kick the puck into the net.
“We have a chance to play in the final which is great,” said Tartar. “The story continues.”
Team Europe, made up of players from Slovakia, Slovenia, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France and Norway, will now face Canada in a best-of-three final starting on Tuesday.
Sweden’s Nicklas Backstrom pounced on a rebound to open the scoring early in the second period and Slovak Marian Gaborik tied the game with under four minutes to play in the frame and set up a tense third period.
Team Europe wasted little time after the intermission as Tartar cashed in his own rebound 12 seconds into period.
They nearly added to their lead midway through the third period when Austria’s Thomas Vanek’s breakaway shot went off Lundqvist’s pad and was heading toward the Swedish net when Anton Stralman cleared it away.
Swedish defenseman Erik Karlsson scored with less than five minutes left in regulation to force overtime but it was all the offense Sweden could muster.
“Disappointed for sure, we knew it was going to be a tough game,” said Swedish captain Henrik Sedin. “They built a team with a lot of stars over there and they got a lot of experience.”
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Turner; Editing by Andrew Both)