Much like the rest of the sporting world, the NHL’s top talent took notice when Mike Trout settled into the batter’s box against Shohei Ohtani during Tuesday’s World Baseball Classic championship game.
The spectacle of baseball’s brightest stars clashing on an international stage resonated with a generation of hockey players who have yet to be granted a similar chance in Olympic competition.
“I thought it was really cool,” Oilers star Connor McDavid told reporters in Edmonton. “It’s what we’ve been asking for in hockey for a long time, right, best on best?”
McDavid was asked about the WBC Final between Japan and USA:— Tony Brar (@TonyBrarOTV) March 22, 2023
"It's what we've been asking for in hockey for a long time. Best on best. Look, everyone's been talking about baseball and 'did you see Ohtani vs. Trout?' That's what hockey's been missing for about a decade now." pic.twitter.com/qW6kzogqPu
NHL players have yet to take the ice in a “best-on-best” competition since the 2016 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto.
But in the eyes of Brad Marchand, that showcase — held during the sleepy weeks of preseason play in September — doesn’t compare to the Olympics.
“I still don’t think there’s anything that compares to the Olympics,” Marchand said Thursday morning at Warrior Ice Arena. “The World Cup is fun and everything, but the Olympics are the Olympics and that’s really where the true best-on-best is always taking place.
“The NHL is trying, it seems like they’re getting away from that and replacing it with the World Cup because of the money value, I believe.”
Marchand asserted himself as a premier winger during the 2016 World Cup, serving as a triggerman on a Canadian top line alongside Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron.
But even though Marchand and Team Canada triumphed over “Team Europe” in a best-of-three final, the consolidated rosters of overseas talent muted the revelry and significance.
For Marchand, the opportunity to represent his home country and battle the top competition in the Olympics has always sat near the top of his career aspirations.
But after the NHL pulled the plug on player participation in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, it remains to be seen when superstars such as McDavid and Auston Matthews will don the colors of their homeland in such an event.
Perhaps things will change ahead of the 2026 Olympics in Italy. But by that juncture, the now-34-year-old Marchand may be on the outside looking in.
“Even with the World Cup, it’s not the same as the Olympics,” Marchand said. “I mean, the last one was fun and everything … but you start mixing teams together like they did with Team Europe, it’s not the same.
“That’s why the Olympics is just different — the whole experience. I obviously don’t know, I haven’t been there. But from what I’ve heard, the whole experience of just being in the Olympic Village and being around the other athletes and just being a part of that whole thing, it’s a spectacle and you’re not going to replace that with the World Cup.
“Obviously hockey, the on-ice stuff, will be similar because the players are similar, but it’s not the same experience.”
Best of both worlds
Since the calendar flipped to 2023, Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman haven’t slowed down amid their carousel of reps in net.
Starting on Jan. 1, Ullmark is a sterling 15-4-0 with a .935 save percentage.
Swayman over that same stretch? 12-3-1, including Thursday night’s 4-2 win over the Canadiens, with four shutouts.
Ullmark might be the Vezina Trophy front-runner, but could Bruins coach Jim Montgomery opt for this current goalie rotation to carry on into postseason play?
“We would have no issues with it,” Montgomery said. “I don’t know if we’re going to do that.”
Swayman’s resurgent second half has been a welcome sight after his early struggles. Not only has it bolstered the 24-year-old’s confidence, it has allowed Montgomery to lighten Ullmark’s workload.
But as of now, Montgomery doesn’t expect Swayman to leapfrog Ullmark on the depth chart for Game 1 of the postseason.
“Most likely Linus is going to start the first game and then we’ll see how it goes game to game from there,” Montgomery said. “I’m not going to commit to anything beyond Game 1.”
Ins and outs
Defenseman Brandon Carlo and forward Jakub Lauko were out of the lineup Thursday night. Jakub Zboril and A.J. Greer slotted into those vacancies … Montgomery remained mum on whether Taylor Hall will get the green light for regular-season action. “He’s got some hurdles here — still in our process of return to play — to go through,” said the coach. “Not certain either way. I don’t have a definitive answer there.” … Did Marchand delete his Twitter account to eliminate distractions ahead of the playoffs? “No, it’s strictly because I’m not paying for Twitter,” said Marchand, who fretted over the removal of two-factor authentication to protect his account.