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2016 World Cup of Hockey pretournament wrap-up

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The tuneups are over, and it's time to take a look at how the teams stack up heading into Saturday's action in Toronto.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The pretournament games are over and everyone has played three games, won at least one, although Finland didn't manage a regulation win. No one went undefeated, although Russia never lost in regulation time.

There have been injuries, goalie controversies, lineup controversies and hype of all kinds.

Group A

Canada

Canada was expected to dominate this group, and they did by some standards.

Their biggest weakness has been Mike Babcock and his desire to play the percentages on risky line changes to gain a territorial advantage. The result has been too many too many men on the ice penalties. At least he's found something he likes to use Claude Giroux for, though, as he has been the go-to guy to serve them.

Their biggest strength is that their lineup is so stacked Claude Giroux is mostly surplus to requirements. Babcock has been sorting the lines out with few issues, and the top line of Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron is outshining even Russia's superline. John Tavares has been particularly effective on the power play with Steven Stamkos and on his regular line as well.

The goalie controversy isn't much of one, with Carey Price needing the pretournament to blow the rust off. Braden Holtby or Corey Crawford could play the whole tournament if they needed to, but Price will likely start every game.

Injuries have been relatively minor. Tyler Seguin has left the tournament with a reported ankle injury and his replacement, Ryan O'Reilly, arrived in time to play in the last game. Matt Duchene missed that game with a minor injury, and it was noticeable; his chemistry with Joe Thornton is one of the unheralded treats of watching an event like this.

Czech Republic

The Czechs brought the best team they could put together, and as expected, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Their biggest weakness is forward depth and the less than exciting play from Jakub Voracek and a few other forwards.

Their greatest strength has been goaltending. The only controversy here is who has been more impressive: Petr Mrazek or Michal Neuvirth? Ondrej Pavelec won't get out of the pressbox unless one of them is hurt, but the Czechs might be well advised to play them as a tandem to maximize their impact.

Beyond the crease, Ondrej Palat has been a stunner for this team, with Tomas Plekanec running a close second and Michal Kempny, the Chicago Blackhawks new man, standing out on defence.

Milan Michalek had a slow start but played a particularly strong possession game in the last exhibition against North America. Roman Polak showed his usual reluctance to pick his moments for the rough stuff in that game but has otherwise been his usual solid basically okay self on defence while being effective at keeping the play moving in the offensive zone.

Injuries have been minor, with Vladimir Sobotka missing the last game due to a shoulder problem.

Europe

With an opening game where they were so outplayed by North America, it was an embarrassment to everyone involved, Europe had nowhere to go but up. They did that fairly well, ending the pretournament with a win over Sweden that had a lopsided score, a hat trick for Leon Draisaitl, but was not a very good even-strength performance by Europe.

Jaroslav Halak, the goalie who has been out of action almost as long as Price, is not showing any signs of rust, and he's the best player on the team, which is never what you want, but it's what they've got.

Their old and slow defence are Europe's biggest weakness. Roman Josi is fine, Zdeno Chara is looking better each game, but the rest of the roster is just not up to the class of competition.

They can win games with luck and a tight, low-risk (boring) system as they showed against Sweden. But at the end of the day, if they're going to take a playoff spot, Halak will have to steal it.

USA

There's a lot of noise around this team, steamy hot air that gets the press to pay attention, but when you wave the clouds away, there are some real problems on the ice.

Jonathan Quick will be the goaltender, and Cory Schneider will get to know the ACC pressbox. Ben Bishop will be ready if Quick's very hot streak cools off. And Quick and his hot streak have been the key to the USA's success so far.

The forwards, all NHL top sixers, are not producing offence at the level they should be beyond the top line. James van Riemsdyk has been flying in the two games he's been in, but he's not had a point yet.

The defence is weak beyond the top pair, with Dustin Byfuglien underused on the third pair, except for the requisite experiment where he played fourth line wing and was very, very unremarkable at it.

As the team searches for more ways to play the body, they find fewer ways to play the puck. If that continues, and there's no reason to think it won't, the key to beating this team will be to shut down the top line and then let them tire themselves out hitting everyone they can catch.

Group B

Finland

The surprise of the pretournament is that Finland has been the worst team both in the standings and in their five-on-five play. Even allowing for the struggles of Europe, Finland has failed to meet expectations the most.

Their goaltending is, as expected, a weakness even with the fame of their starter Pekka Rinne. Taken out of the milieu of Nashville and its supercharged defence, he is struggling. Unfortunately, Tuukka Rask was not better in his starts so far.

The Finnish defence, which is very young and very inexperienced, is struggling against the tougher opponents, and while the good systems the forwards are playing is helping, they aren't putting any pucks in the net while they're helping on defence.

Patrik Laine, who had been nearly invisible for the first two games, showed some life in the third game, and if he and Aleksander Barkov get going, then the Finns will have a chance.

They escaped the preliminary round without any injuries, and without much in the way of highlights beyond their mostly lucky win over Sweden at home in the first game.

North America

They came out flying in their first game and they haven't quit. The word for this team is speed, and the most interesting game so far has been the Czechs showing they had the counter to it that could succeed.

The biggest strength of North America has to be their endless rotation of forward lines, absolutely none of whom are as bad defensively as predicted. Considering they have the second or third best defensive corps in the tournament, that puts them in a very good position. Morgan Rielly has been good, sometimes excellent, but he's making some defensive miscues under pressure that are a bit of a concern.

Speaking of defence, Auston Matthews worked out his nerves and inexperience on the fourth line playing largely defensive minutes, and by the third game he was the offensive power we should be expecting to see emerge in the NHL this year. He's not the best player on the team. That is a genuine toss up between Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, but Matthews is better every period than the one before.

There is no goalie controversy here at all. The goalie with the least rest in this tournament is hot like burning, and Matt Murray should be considered the starter until further notice.

Not many injuries have hit North America, and they enter the tournament chomping at the bit to go, go, go. They might still be going in October.

Russia

It's like they set out to fulfil every stereotype about Russians as players and the Russian game on the international stage. They have not been impressing anyone so far with their effort level or their results. They played a very, very poor game in Prague, followed it up with a lacklustre game against Canada that went to overtime on the strength of the third period where they woke up and worked a little. They just don't seem to care about preseason games. And why should they? Their lineup is mostly set, and there's nothing to prove.

Sergei Bobrovsky will be the starter, as expected.

Alex Ovechkin will anchor the top line, and Artemi Panarin and his old SKA linemates will be the best line in the tournament after that Crosby line.

The Russian defence is weak but has been settling down and improving. Nikita Zaitsev had a very good game against Canada last night, right up until he turned the puck over in overtime, joined in the wholesale line change (during three-on-three!!) and lost the game.

Eh, it's an exhibition. When it's a real game, the Russians will play it like they mean it.

Sweden

Troubled by injuries in training camp, the problem continued into the pretournament for Sweden. They lost Rickard Rakell to what is reported to be a complication from appendix surgery, and he is still in hospital in Sweden. And, more worrying for him, still without a contract for next year.

Their goalie situation was supposed to be the least controversial of the tournament. Henrik Lundqvist would play every game, and his two backups would never see the ice outside of warm up. Lundqvist has been abysmal, and if that doesn't immediately change, the Swedes might be looking at starting Jacob Markstrom, the Vancouver backup of no great reputation. Jhonas Enroth seems destined to spend his time in the pressbox.

They have played solid, often brilliant games at five-on-five so far, but aren't scoring goals. Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson are an excellent power play and a detriment at even strength, but their second unit of Nicklas Backstrom, Patric Hornqvist and Filip Forsberg might challenge Canada's and Russia's best once the real games get going.

The curious choice to replace the speedy sniper Rakell with solid two-way centre Patrik Berglund might indicate that the Swedes are looking to smother the opposition defensively while relying on that scoring prowess of their top two lines to pad out their goal total. I seem to recall a certain red and white team winning the Olympic gold that way, so it's hard to complain about the plan.

Predictions

Group A seems obvious and obviously set up to produce Canada and the USA as the two playoff teams. The Czechs could get lucky and play spoiler, and Halak could steal one for Europe, but it still seems a safe bet that those two teams will be moving on.

Group B looks like it has to be North America and one of Russia or Sweden. But don't count Finland out yet. They have the offensive punch to win games, and they will not fall apart under pressure into individual efforts working at cross purposes while the Russians might. Until Panarin's line takes the ice and all is right again, of course.

Nicklas Backstrom described the pretournament as a regular season and said Sweden's opening game against Russia is like the playoffs. He's right, and the winner of that game is going to be in the best position to make the playoffs.

And North America? Are they a sure thing? They look like it so far, but they haven't exactly had a tough test yet. They start out against Finland, and that game should tell us who has a second gear for the games that count, and who doesn't.