TORONTO >> Late in Team Europe's exhibition victory over Sweden, Danish forward Frans Nielsen looked at his country's flag on his sleeve and reflected.
Nielsen remembered the 200 times Denmark played Sweden and lost.
"We tried so many times, but they're just too good," Nielsen said.
But on a team that mixes players from Denmark, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia, Austria and Norway, Nielsen beamed with pride that he finally — finally — beat the Swedes. It didn't matter that it was a pre-tournament game with no points on the line because Team Europe now has a belief going into its World Cup of Hockey opener Saturday against the United States.
"It's fun to come to a tournament like this and feel like you have a chance to do something," Nielsen said.
Coach Ralph Krueger, a Canadian who serves as chairman of the Southampton Football Club, calls it "the magic of Team Europe," the only one at the World Cup that won't have an anthem played before its games. Critics have complained that mashing together leftover European players is too gimmicky a concept, but the group together makes the World Cup far more competitive than if individual countries had to go up against titans like Canada and Sweden.
Anze Kopitar is the only NHL player from Slovenia and knows his national team couldn't win a tournament like this. Slovakia has enjoyed some international success, but in a best-on-best competition, it can't hold up as well, and neither can most of the other countries.
Together, it's different.
"You don't feel like a complete underdog where you're going to be outshot 50-10 and your goalie needs to make numerous saves in order for you to have a chance to win a game," Danish forward Jannik Hansen said. "You feel like the playing field is leveled a little bit because now you have the depth that is always lacking when you play these teams."
Slovak goaltender Jaroslav Halak won't be counted on to be a hero. Halak stopped 34 of 36 shots against Sweden and could see a similar workload against the U.S.
He'll have help because Europe is deep up front with playmakers Marian Gaborik and Thomas Vanek, all-around winger Marian Hossa and speedster Mats Zuccarello. Big Zdeno Chara and underappreciated Roman Josi anchor the defense, which will be tasked with stopping Patrick Kane and the Americans.
Krueger believes it was good for his team to get "whacked a couple of times" by North America to shake off some summer sluggishness, break bad habits and prepare for the U.S.
"It was the best thing for us," he said.
That is, until Europe scored five goals to chase "The King," Henrik Lundqvist, and beat Sweden on Wednesday in Washington. Beyond giving Nielsen a sense of relief, that win was a major boost.
"It's just another step we took in the right direction," defenseman Christian Ehrhoff said. "Playing a good team in Team Sweden and beating them, it gives us confidence and it shows that we are not just here to show up and lose."
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .