It just never came together. Which happens.
There will be lots of second guessing about Team Canada at the world juniors, and being out of the running for a medal this early for the first time in 18 years will fuel that, as will the fact Canada is again having a very tough time capturing gold in this competition after winning five in a row from 2005 through 2009.
Canada now has one gold (2015) to show for the past seven world junior tournaments, as well as two silvers and a bronze.
All that is fair. The program has dealt with failure before and prospered, and regardless of Ron Wilson’s chirping, it’s not about television networks putting too much pressure on Canadian teams. But the reasons why it didn’t come together, and came crashing to earth with a 6-5 loss to the Finns Saturday will obviously be part of the postmortem for Dave Lowry and his staff. This is a team that won only one of five games in regulation and needed a shootout to beat Switzerland, the kind of overall performance that just isn’t acceptable for the powerful Canadian junior program.
Strangely, it actually seemed at various stages today that it was coming together. There was a 2-0 lead early. There were Mitch Marner’s long-awaited heroics in the third period, an element that Canada had been hoping for all week. But iffy goaltending, blueline mistakes and lousy discipline killed Canada.
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The goaltending issue has cropped up again and again in recent years, helping to create the momentum that led to a ban on European goalies in the Canadian Hockey League, while the discipline issue has rarely been a problem after being the bane of Canada’s international hockey efforts for years. But it was a problem today and really, it was a problem from the last exhibition game against Sweden until today’s tournament ending defeat.
You can’t slam these kids for being unable to maintain their poise in the tough moments. But Jake Virtanen’s penchant for unnecessary penalties was a curiosity the entire tournament, and it hindered Canada’s best efforts today. Virtanen was a major disappointment in that he didn’t deliver much on the attack, and as a returning player, didn’t seem to supply the necessary leadership and composure. Lowry just couldn’t rein him in.
But Virtanen, a last minute loan to the team from the Vancouver Canucks, was just one player. Finland’s goaltending was dicey at best and they needed two puckstoppers on the day, but Mackenzie Blackwood just couldn’t come up with the stops in the Canadian net, leaving one to wonder why Mason McDonald didn’t get another shot after playing the first two games while Blackwood sat out with a suspension.
Between them, in the games that really mattered against the U.S., Sweden and the Finns, Team Canada’s goaltenders coughed up 14 goals.
Partly because of that, Canada couldn’t control the dynamic Finnish duo of Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine at all in the quarterfinals, and it was another game where Canada’s blueline really struggled. After establishing the initial 2-0 lead, Brandon Hickey’s bad pass to Hadyn Fleury after Canada had won a faceoff in its own end in the final seconds of the first period led to Finland’s first goal.
Then Hickey turned and fell early in the second, creating the opportunity for the Finns to bag the 2-2 goal. It went on and on like that all afternoon, and the final nail came late in the third when Joe Hicketts shot the puck the entire length of the ice and into the netting with Canada already trying to kill off two Virtanen penalties on the same play—tripping and slashing. Hicketts went to the box and gave Finland a 5-on-3 power play and a chance to win the game, which Laine did.
Nine penalties were just too many for Canada to overcome the other deficiencies in its game.
On this day, the Canadian offence finally came to life, with Marner, Dylan Strome and Lawson Crouse all finding the net. But the shootout style of the game just seemed to fit the Finns better. Puljujarvi has used this tournament (15 points in five games) to slingshot himself into a position where he may be able to challenge American centre Auston Matthews for the No. 1 position in next summer’s draft, and Laine (five goals) isn’t far behind.
A clash between the Finns and the Americans, pitting Puljujarvi against Matthews, would be juicy indeed. Matthews seems uncatchable for the honour of being the first overall pick in the NHL Draft because, among other things, he’s the big centre all teams need. He’s also been a dominant force for the U.S. in the world juniors, and certainly hasn't done anything to detract from his position of being the top prospect on the planet.
That said, Puljujarvi’s performance in Helskinki has at least put him in the conversation.
Saturday, defenceman Olli Juloevi, who plays for the OHL’s London Knights and was ranked 16th in Sportsnet’s Top Prospects list last month, was just outstanding for the Finns, particularly while running his country’s lethal power play. With Puljujarvi and Laine already almost certain top 10 NHL picks, Juolevi might yet join them.
Juolevi supplied the poise and creativity from the blueline for Finland that Canada never really had despite the presence of Hicketts, Thomas Chabot and others.