VANCOUVER — Is Canada getting a reputation for diving here at the world junior hockey championship?
It sounds that way, if you listen Finnish head coach Jussi Ahokas, whose 2-2 Suomis take on 3-1 Canada in this afternoon’s loser-go-home, quarter-final match (6:30 p.m. ET).
“Canada knows what to do. They know what to do to get the penalties. We have to be ready for that,” advised Ahokas. “For what I’ve seen so far there have been so many penalties for the teams (playing) against Canada.”
OK, Jussi, there’s just one problem: A quick look at the tournament stats shows that, through four games, the Finns have received 16 power plays to 15 for Canada. In fact, Canada ranks seventh among the 10 teams in power-play attempts, going 20 per cent.
Maxime Comtois has been caught diving three or four times, but thus far the referees aren’t being fooled by the Canadian captain. This is do-or-die time for the Finns, however. No time to let the facts get in the way of a good narrative.
“All the pressure’s on Canada. We don’t have the pressure,” continued Ahokas. “We’ve been in this building. We’ve seen it. Now they have all the pressure in the world on them, (while) we go there and have fun. It will be a great night for us.”
In truth, there’s plenty of pressure to go around. Take, for example, the group of Finland’s top players who did not produce in the preliminary round. In each of its games against Sweden and the Untied States, Finland could only manage a single goal.
Eeli Tolvanen, Nashville’s first-rounder from 2017, has played four games for the Predators this year (one goal, one assist) and another 24 for AHL Milwaukee, where he’s racked up a dozen points. In four games at the WJC however, Tolvanen has 17 shots on goal but only two assists to show for it.
“Everyone expects goals, and I haven’t had my bounces yet,” said Tolvanen, who is struggling to assimilate to this level even though this is his third WJC. “They are still kids,” he said of his teammates, “and there aren’t that many systems out there.”
The Finnish power play is grinding along at just 12 per cent. Nineteen-year-old Aleksi Heponiemi, a Florida draftee, has just one goal and two points. Aarne Talvitie, a sixth-round pick of New Jersey who plays at Penn State, is the only Finn with two goals.
“We’ve had a ton of chances. We have to be more efficient,” said Ahokas. “I think all of our top guys, they’ve been waiting. Now the game starts.
“These are perfect chances. You don’t get these types of chances too many times, to play in a full house against Canada. We have to love the opportunity.”
The Finns opened their tournament with a 2-1 loss to Sweden, whooped Kazakhstan and the Slovaks 5-0 and 5-1 respectively, then lost a 4-1 game to the United States that set up this meeting with Canada. Now they’ll have to search for their offence against a stingy Canadian team that has allowed the least goals against (five) and shots on goal (86) in the tournament thus far.
One player who has three points but will be worth keeping an eye on tonight is 17-year-old Kaapo Kakko, certain to be a high first-round pick in the June draft.
“I would have hoped for a couple of more points, but I had a good start. The real games start now,” said the six-foot-one Kakko. He comes from Turku, the Finnish city that gave hockey the Koivu brothers. But his favourite players are currently playing in Toronto and Colorado.
He watches Auston Matthews every chance he gets, between games for TPS Turku.
“I like him very much. He’s such a good stickhandler – great with the puck. A great offensive player,” Kakko said, through teammate/interpreter Talvitie. “I (also) look up to Mikko Rantanen a lot. How he protects the puck, and plays with the puck.”
He prefers to play the wing, like Rantanen. He also listens to his coach, apparently.
“The pressure is on them, for sure,” Kakko said of Canada. “Everyone thinks we’re the underdog here, but we know we have a good team, a good chance to win. It’ll be a close game for sure.”