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TORONTO – Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron have been skating, scoring and setting each other up as if they're in midseason form with the Boston Bruins.
Sidney Crosby, picking right up where he left off a few months ago in winning the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, looks as dominant as ever before the start of the regular season.
The trio played together on the same line during Canada's undefeated run through the World Cup of Hockey, giving them a chance to get and stay in a groove that should serve their teams and perhaps the entire NHL well.
The two-week, best-on-best tournament that ended Thursday night with the Canadians beating Team Europe forced the game's top players to start training earlier than usual. It also put the league's standouts and stars in highly competitive games that tested them in a way preseason games simply can't.
"I think they're going to come out flying," Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill said. "They've been playing at a high level. Everybody else is just getting into that level. They've been there for a month already. They're playing against the best. The pace and the tempo they've been playing at, I think those players I think are going to be leading the league early on."
In addition to individual players getting a boost, some teams may have an edge early in the season because they had multiple players taking advantage of the opportunity to sharpen their skills before the preseason.
More than half of the league had at least six players picked to play, including Tampa Bay (12) and Chicago (10) with double digits in participants.
"It's a great way to jumpstart your season," said Brent Burns, one of seven San Jose Sharks in the World Cup. "I think guys will feel like they're in rhythm and ready to go."
St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said it was difficult to start training camp without seven key players because they were in Toronto.
"It was a reality check," Hitchcock said. "The real challenge is pulling your system together once they all join us and we have our team together. The players that played in the World Cup will be mentally more alert and they'll be ready for the tempo, which will make our team better and the league potentially better. But we're not going to have a lot of time to implement everything we want to do this season."
The World Cup is also going to hurt some teams who will start the season without a key player because of an injury sustained in September.
The Los Angeles Kings are expected to be without Marian Gaborik for several weeks because of a foot injury. Pittsburgh may not have goaltender Matt Murray for a month because of a broken hand. Calgary's Mikael Backlund and Florida's Aaron Ekblad had concussions at the World Cup and the head injuries always have the potential to linger.
The high-flying players from the North American 23-and-under team will likely be ready to roll when the puck drops for the regular season with a new level of confidence after seeing for first-hand that their speed could help them have success against established stars in the league.
But even for players who survived the grind without an injury, there's a chance they added wear and tear on their bodies that may not show up until later in the long regular season and possibly the playoffs.
"This is our ninth game before October," said San Jose's Logan Couture, counting the pre-tournament games in his total. "That's a lot of hockey early in the year. We'll see how that affects us going forward. I'm sure with our coaching staff we'll come up with a plan with rest. Hopefully, we can jump in and feel good at least at the start of the season."