Let’s face it; this has been a lousy world junior showing for Canada, the defending champions.
Four unimpressive showings in four games, of course, no longer matters. It’s what Dave Lowry’s team does now, starting Saturday in the quarterfinals against Finland, that matters, and Canada’s world junior history is filled with teams that looked anywhere from inept to mediocre in the preliminary round and then found a way to win a medal, sometimes gold.
But the signs are mostly gloomy. In fact, finding a bright spot for Canada right now would be a significant challenge for Lowry and his staff after a 5-2 defeat at the hands of Sweden on Thursday.
Instead of looking like a team that was gaining momentum, Canada (1-1-0-2) struggled throughout with discipline, penalty killing, line combinations and basic issues like moving the puck crisply with tape-to-tape passes.
That result followed a tight loss to the U.S. on Boxing Day, an easy win over weak Denmark and a nail biter shootout triumph over a Swiss team that’s now facing relegation and was embarrassed by the Swedes and the Americans.
For Saturday’s quarterfinal, Lowry doesn’t really have a single line that’s clicking or a defensive pairing that appears particularly confident. Mitch Marner did score a late goal on a 5-on-3 power play against the Swedes, but otherwise he and Canada’s other skilled forwards, notably Dylan Strome, Brayden Point, Rourke Chartier and Julien Gauthier, have all struggled to finish and create cohesiveness with their teammates.
Jake Virtanen was supposed to be a last minute gift from the Vancouver Canucks to the junior nats, but he’s been a non-factor on the attack and took a dumb penalty early on Thursday that resulted in the first of three Swedish power-play goals. He and Canada’s other big forwards, Brendan Perlini and Lawson Crouse, have looked like the games on Helsinki ice are a little too quick for them.
On the back end, Canada’s defence is having trouble moving the puck smoothly to the forwards to create offence, and there will be some debate as to why Sarnia Sting blueliner Jakob Chychrun wasn’t part of this group.
On the bright side, Travis Konecny showed the way with energy, and he’ll need to do more of that against Finland at what will be a noisy, sold out Hartwall Arena on Saturday.
While the Finns are at home, they’re giving up lots of goals and have an ailing blueline corps that was down to four regulars in their 5-4 win over the Czechs on Thursday. The challenge for Canada will be to find a line that can play against the dazzling trio of centre Sebastien Aho, right winger Jesse Puljujarvi and left winger Patrik Laine, a unit that has been the talk of the tournament.
Puljujarvi leads the competition in scoring and now looks like the top challenger to Auston Matthews of the United States as the likely No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft in June. Not far behind is Laine, who has four goals, including the winner against the Czechs in a game the Finns trailed 4-3 at one point.
It’s a winnable game for Canada if it can shut down that line and find some offence in a group that has 11 goals in four games, with six of those coming against Denmark.
If Canada can get by the Finns, they’d likely face the unbeaten, untied Swedes. Russia also has an unblemished record and essentially gets a walkover against the Danes in the quarters, while the U.S. faces the tricky Czechs.