HELSINKI – The Canadian teenagers staggered unimpressively through the opening round at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship but came through with their best effort in the quarterfinals.
It still wasn’t enough to extend their stay in the tournament.
Though they jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period and were up by a goal late in the second period, the defending champions went down 6-5 to the host Finns.
And so, with the Canadian team heading home, let the post mortems begin.
Before the game on Twitter, I cited a few things that were going to have to take place if Canada was going to have any shot at getting past the Finns who were probably the most impressive team in the opening round.
A safe start: Off the hop, I suggested that the Canadian teens couldn’t give up an opening goal in the first ten minutes, just long enough to take the crowd out of the game and to gain a little confidence after a beatdown by the Swedes on New Year’s Eve.
They managed to do that and more.
Canada jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first on goals by Travis Konecny and Dylan Strome. In fact, Strome probably counts himself unlucky not to have scored another in the frame — he forced a turnover and had a clean break in on goal, forcing Finnish netminder Veini Vehvilainen to make a glove save. Out in front by three in third, well, this story would probably read quite a bit differently than this tale of woe.
Clean handles: Before the game I suggested that the Canadian blue-liners were going to have to handle the puck better than they had in the opening-round games and through 19 minutes you couldn’t find much fault in their play. They might have made more first passes and clean breakouts in that stretch against the Finns than they did through 60 minutes in their loss to Sweden.
Still, their first real breakdown cost them dearly. On the final shift of the period, off a faceoff in the defensive end, the Canadians controlled the draw and one clean D-to-D pass gets the team back to the dressing room with a two-goal lead, but Hayden Fleury mishandled the puck and one short breath later Finland’s Patrik Laine wired a shot past MacKenzie Blackwood and the game was 2-1. Six minutes into the second Antii Kalapudas tied the game, breaking in all alone on Blackwood and beat him cleanly.
A full reboot. All of Canada’s good work at that point had gone for naught. You suspected that the team would have been gone into a downward spiral at that point, yet the Canadians surged and took the game to the Finns for the next few shifts.
Exploit the Finns’ weakest position: I suggested before the game that goaltending is the weakest link in the host’s chain. No real news given that the Finns’ save percentage was not quite .890 here, the second worst in the tournament. And sure enough, within a minute of the tying goal, Canada regained the lead with a Lawson Crouse one-timer from the slot beating Vehvilainen.
In fact, Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen had seen enough — Strome’s goal was an ugly botch job by Vehvilainen and the netminder lost his compass on Crouse, so Jalonen yanked his starter and put in his backup Kaapo Kahkonen.
Blackwood has to be very good if not great: It would have been easy to say that Canada needed Blackwood to steal the game but it didn’t quite have to go that far. He just needed to be solid and make timely saves. Through about half the game Blackwood did.
He was best with the game scoreless in the first period — on a Finnish power play in that stretch he made four big saves in quick succession. However, in the second Blackwood came unwound. The next two goals, by Aleksi Saarela and Julius Nattinen over the span of 90 seconds, were, politely, not great.
As all losing coaches of Canadian under-20 teams, Dave Lowry will be questioned a lot for just about every decision made, but he told reporters that he didn’t give a thought to pulling Blackwood in favor of Mason McDonald. Which makes him different than many rooting for his team. Blackwood wound up giving up six goals on 29 shots and the numbers don’t lie.
Stay out of the box: Okay, it’s never a great idea to make a habit of giving the other guys power plays, but it was clear to everybody that it would be crushing to give the Finns a succession of power plays. After all, the unit featuring the two draft-eligible wunderkinds, Jesse Puljujarvi and Laine, was clicking along at 50 per cent here going into the Canada game, and in the third period, despite a couple of goals from Mitch Marner, Canada lost because of bad penalties.
Many of the Canadian players, notably Strome, complained about the officiating after the game — in fact Strome chased the officials off the ice at game’s end — but a delay-of-game minor to Joey Hicketts and a petulant double minor to serial offender Jake Virtanen spelled doom for Canada. Laine scored the game winner on a five-on-three with less than six minutes to go in regulation.
A lot of things fell into place for the Canadians to upset the Finns, but then some of those things fell out of place. Canada had a good chance of making the semifinal but those chances would have looked a heck of a lot better if Blackwood had been hooked and if Virtanen could exercise some discipline.
That might read like second-guessing, but if you say it beforehand no one can press charges.