World Championship What to Watch For: Third time’s the charm for Canada vs. Finland

Canada's Matt Barzal celebrates his goal with teammates during a match between the Czech Republic and Canada in the semifinals of the Hockey World Championships, in Tampere, Finland, Saturday, May 28, 2022. (AP)

Canada and Finland will meet in the final for the third consecutive year at the men’s world hockey championship, but the red and white face a massive challenge: Taking on the challengers on their raucous home turf.

Here’s what you need to know about the gold-medal game held Sunday at the Nokia Arena in Tampere, Finland and starting at 1:20 p.m. ET / 10:20 a.m. PT.

HOME COUNTRY ADVANTAGE

Finland won this matchup in the final in 2019 and Canada took the gold in 2021 (the tournament was cancelled in 2020). The rosters of the respective teams are different, of course, but there are enough returning players to assure this game has an added layer of grudge.

The biggest difference in this rematch: Suomi are playing in their own rink in front of their own fans. The crowd was a factor in the Finns’ 4-3 win over the U.S. in the semifinals with the packed house cheering on their team like only they can. Players like to say they don’t hear the crowd once they get into the game, but if Canada falls into the trap of running around and taking bad penalties, expect a lot of derisive whistling.

“We know the building is going to be rocking, and the Finns are playing for gold at home, but we need to try to have a strong start and not let (the Finns) build momentum from their fans,” Canada’s Dylan Cozens said after Saturday’s game.

TRUCULENCE VS. DISCIPLINE

The Finns have a reputation for being disciplined, meticulous and patient, and their play to this point in the tournament has done nothing to change that impression. Through nine games, they’ve taken 68 minutes in penalties to the Canadians’ 113. But, wait, it gets better: The Finns haven’t allowed a power-play goal during the entire tournament. That’s right, their PK rate heading into the final is 100 per cent.

On the other hand, the Canadians had, ahem, considerably more chances to refine their penalty-killing skills, shutting down the opposition 78.38 per cent of the time while shorthanded. That was good for seventh in the tournament, but not great, really, considering the speed and skill on the team.

The key here against the Finns will be, naturally, to stay out of the box. But that is easier said than done when the Canadians reflexively rely on a heavy game and the officials are looking for any hint of malfeasance, given Canada’s rough-and-dirty reputation internationally.

Look no further to see how this can go awry than the semifinal against Czechia, when Zach Whitecloud took a double-minor for cross-checking a mere 4:28 into the game, resulting in a David Krejci power-play goal. Canada got dinged for two more penalties in the period before responding with six straight goals to run away with a 6-1 win, but they are not going to have that same bounce-back possibility against the tight Finns.

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On the power play, the Finns aren’t nearly as proficient, scoring 31.03 per cent of the time (fifth) compared with Canada’s No. 2-ranked 34.48 per cent efficiency. Arguably, the Canadian power play is firing on all cylinders heading into the final, going 2-for-4 against Czechia, both goals fueling a second-period rally that proved the difference in the semifinal.

The Canadians will have to strike the delicate balance between physical play and enthusiastic truculence. Otherwise, it won’t take much for the zebras to start issuing passes to the penalty box if Canada repeatedly crosses the line.

OFFENCE IS THE BEST … OFFENCE

Canada’s top line of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cozens and Drake Batherson are 2-3-4 in tournament scoring, combining for 16 goals, 38 points and plus-28. Adam Lowry, Kent Johnson, Matt Barzal and defencemen Ryan Graves and Devon Severson round out the offensive names to watch for Canada.

The Finns’ top scorer is, appropriately, a defenceman: Mikko Lehtonen, who leads with two goals and 10 assists for 12 points. Sakari Manninen, Mikael Granlund and Joel Armia are also worth keeping an eye on.

Not among the top scorers for the team but still a factor is defenceman Miro Heiskanen, who came over during the tournament after his Dallas Stars were bounced by the Calgary Flames. Heiskanen has a sneaky five points in five games, to go along with a plus-four. He’s not exactly a secret weapon, but he’s a major brick in the wall for the Finns’ blue-line corps.

“It’s great that we have (Heiskanen) here,” Lehtonen said after Finland’s 4-3 semifinal win over the U.S. “He’s an unbelievable player. He skates so well, he sees everything when he’s on the ice, he can move, he can dangle with the puck. It’s a good thing for us.”

POSSESSION IS NINE-TENTHS OF THE LAW

A major key for Canada’s chance will be off the draw. Specifically, the Canadians have four players in the top 10 in faceoff percentage, led by Dubois, who owns the space with an otherworldly 66.94 percentage. Also good here are Lowry, Dawson Mercer and Nicholas Roy. The lone Finn in the top 10, Hannes Bjorninen, could be seeing a lot of challengers.

GOALTENDING, OF COURSE

It’s no secret Canadian goaltending is at a bit of a crossroads, and its performance in this tournament is a wonky ninth when ranked by save percentage (.891, to go with a 2.46 team goals-against average), but Chris Driedger is not having any of it while coming off a stellar 25-save performance against Czechia. The Seattle Kraken stopper didn’t have the season expected of him, and his .910 tournament save percentage is bordering on ordinary, but he appears to be gaining the hot hand at the right time.

At the other end of the ice, of course, we have the country that rules the goaltending world. Finland’s team save percentage is a minimalist .949 and goals-against average a paltry 1.10, both marks leaving the rest of the tournament in the dust. If Canada loses, it will because they couldn’t find a way to solve Jussi Olkinuora (0.86 GAA).

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE FINNS

Based on comments after the win over Czechia, Canada seems serious about winning its fourth world championship in the last seven tournaments. But … Finland.

“We came here to win. We take pride in our hockey. As Canadians, hockey’s in our blood, so I know everyone back home is rooting for us to get gold. It’s an honour to play for your country and that’s the whole reason we come over here.” –defenceman Ryan Graves

“Our first line is unbelievable right now, our power play is clicking, we got some huge goals from the fourth line as well. It’s total team effort and we need this to get to win the gold medal.” –forward Max Comtois

“The only reason we came here is to get to this gold medal game and do everything we can to win it. Step 1 is done, we’re in that game that we wanted to play, and now Step 2 is to get ready and get that gold medal.” –Dubois

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