VANCOUVER — There is no question that this was not an elite edition of Team Canada at the world juniors, or that they didn’t have their hands full with a Finnish team that was every bit their equal — maybe even better — in Wednesday’s quarterfinal.
Look — the Canadians scored one goal in their final Preliminary Round game against Russia, and then one goal against Finland in this 2-1 quarterfinal loss. Sure, they had goaltending and defence, but in the end, they call it a scoreboard.
Not a defendboard.
So, when we call this Finnish victory the luckiest win we’ve seen, perhaps ever, in 30 years as a sports writer, we’re not saying that Canada deserved better. You score just once in 60 minutes; you don’t deserve a darned thing.
But sheesh, the string of events that left Canada packing their bags on Wednesday? Like, if Finland can get that much luck in one night at Rogers Arena, then why can’t a poor scribe win a 50/50 draw once in a while?
“Lucky goals,” said Finnish forward Jesse Ylonen. “We were so unlucky in the first two periods. I think we deserved it.”
“This is what sport’s about,” said Canadian head coach Tim Hunter. “It’s a game of inches, a game of small little breaks. We just didn’t manufacture that break tonight. Somehow, they did.”
Here’s what went down in this unforgettable quarterfinal, a Canadian loss that left them without a medal for the first time ever when hosting this tournament.
• With 47 seconds left in a 1-0 game, Eeli Tolvanen flipped a puck onto the outside of the net from behind the goal. The puck rebounded from the net, off of the foot of teammate Aleksi Heponiemi, off of Canadian goalie Michael DiPietro’s stick, rolled up his blocker and landed in the Canadian net. We’ve seen Pachinko balls go more north-south than that puck did. It was the “Foot of God” goal.
• After a failed Canadian penalty shot in four-on-four OT, Noah Dobson had three-quarters of a wide open net to win the game. He turned his hips, cocked his stick, and … (wait for it) … the stick snapped on the shot. The puck went the other way, where Toni Utunen — who had not scored a goal all season long — fired a wrist shot.
The puck hit the shaft of Cody Glass’s stick and went top shelf past DiPietro, who had been brilliant.
“It feels so amazing,” said Utunen, who like DiPietro is a Vancouver Canucks draft pick. “It is the first goal of my season. A huge goal for me.
“That was the luck what we needed. Usually, that is how it goes in.”
“We earned that bounce,” declared Finnish head coach Jussi Ahokas. “In front of full stands, 19,000 people, on Canadian soil, a penalty shot in overtime… What more can you ask for?”
The confluence of breaks — not one, not two, but three — left the Canadians in disbelief. They’d let Finland hang around…
No, check that. They were not good enough offensively to put Finland away; to be in a position where a late, bad break wasn’t going to matter either way.
“It’s brutal,” said Canada’s lone goal scorer, defenceman Ian Mitchell. “In the second period they had us on our heels a bit, but in the third period when we needed to play our hardest defensively, we did that. To have two goals like that happen to us? It’s something that will stay with me for a long time.
“Just brutal. A brutal way to lose a game.”
The Hockey Gods, they don’t get it wrong very often. Canada didn’t do itself any favours, scoring just 10 goals in its final four games here, with a powerplay that didn’t score in its last two games (0-for-8).
The coach of a team that did not hold a practice since Christmas Day, then lacked polish when crunch time arrived, is going to face criticism. Nobody who wears the maple leaf and loses out in a quarterfinal game comes away unscathed. Not in this country.
We asked Hunter how it was he couldn’t find a way to squeeze a second goal out of his charges in each of the last two games.
“Oh, I wish I could (have).” he said. “I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you.”
It’s never fun to stand in a mixed zone full of devastated teenagers and pry into just how truly devastated they are. They all dream of this chance, to wear the maple leaf at a world junior tournament at Chrismastime just once in their lives.
But the dream, it never ends like this.
“No, definitely not,” said Mitchell, a well-spoken Calahoo, Alta., kid who plays and studies at Denver University. “I remember when Canada lost in the quarters a few years ago, how devastating it was for everyone. You don’t want to be the team that does that.
“It’s just heart breaking, for us and all of the country. You just wish that, at the end of the day, you’re putting on a gold medal. We weren’t able to do that, so…”
So, the tournament moves on, and a bunch of crushed Canadian kids head home.
Anyone want tickets for Finland-Switzerland on Friday night? I’ll give you a deal…