TORONTO — Canada was not at its best. And it was still good enough.
Brad Marchand and Steven Stamkos scored in the first period and the Canadians cruised to a 3-1 win over Team Europe in Game 1 of the World Cup of Hockey finals on Tuesday night.
“You like things to be perfect every night, but it’s just not real,” Canada coach Mike Babcock said.
Game 2 of the best-of-three series is Thursday night.
“We have a feeling in there that this is far from over,” said forward Frans Nielsen, who is from Denmark. “We know we can go out there and take a game, take the next one and make this a one-game series.”
Patrice Bergeron’s goal midway through the third period created a two-goal cushion.
Carey Price finished with 32 saves for the Canadians, who have won two straight Olympic gold medals and 15 consecutive best-on-best hockey games since losing to the U.S. at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
In most of those wins, they were much more dominant.
“We can be better, but ultimately we found a way to win,” Sidney Crosby said.
Slovakia’s Tomas Tatar scored his third goal in two games 7 minutes into the second period to get Europe within one.
Jaroslav Halak, who is also from Slovakia, stopped 35 shots for the unique team made up of eight European nations outside of the continent’s traditional powers.
The Canadians were playing at home, but didn’t seem to get much of an emotional boost in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ arena, where there were a lot of empty seats and suites.
The NHL and NHL Players’ Association combined to revive the event, which hasn’t been held since 2004, with a twist. They created Team Europe and Team North America, a squad made up of players 23 and younger from the U.S. and Canada.
The format created a highly competitive eight-team field, but as Babcock said earlier in the day, “The World Cup is great. It’s not the Olympics . Let’s not get confused.”
There was no confusion about who had more talent on the ice Tuesday night, but Europe got off to a strong start and put pressure on a star-studded squad that has been behind just twice in five games and for a little more than a minute each time against the U.S. and Russia.
“We made it a game where we can take confidence into the fact that we can win against Team Canada, but it has to be perfect,” Europe coach Ralph Krueger said.
Price had to make three saves and face a power play in the first 21 seconds of the game.
“They skated right by us on the first shift,” Babcock said.
Shortly after failing to score on a power play, Europe turned the puck over and Bergeron carried it up the middle of the ice. He faded to the right and passed across the crease to set up Marchand’s fourth goal of the tournament 2:33 into the game. The Boston Bruins teammates have been playing on a line with Crosby, the star center for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Another Bruin, Zdeno Chara , was careless with the puck later in the opening period and it was costly. Ryan Getzlaf snatched the puck from Chara near center ice along the boards and faked a shot at the top of the left circle, leading to a tap-in goal for Stamkos on the right side of the net.
“A couple of mistakes on our part cost us two goals,” Europe’s Anze Kopitar said.
Crosby’s second assist of the night and his World Cup-high ninth point helped Canada to a 3-1 lead. He shot the puck on the left side of the net, got to the carom and circled back to set up Bergeron in front of the net.
The Canadians didn’t relax with the lead, attacking on offense and backchecking on defense to prevent Europe from having hope of coming back even when it pulled Halak late in the game.
“We didn’t play our game in the first two periods. It was a little sloppy,” Stamkos said. “But in the third period, game was on the line, we played the majority of the game in their end.”