EDMONTON — At a glance, it might seem like it’s been a breeze for Canada at the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship. Four straight games, four straight wins — an undefeated run through the preliminary round, none of the victories particularly close. But after being handed the toughest test of their tournament so far on Monday at Rogers Place, the Canadians now head into the quarterfinals having seen a glimpse of how much tougher the path ahead will be.
It started early in this one. Through the opening minutes of Canada’s matchup with Finland — their last opportunity to iron out any flaws before the elimination games begin — it was the visitors who came flying out of the gates. The Finns were buzzing early, stirring up a storm for the hosts to weather until they got their feet under them, netminder Dylan Garand tested with a few shots before Canada managed to even break into the opposing zone.
It was a far cry from the start the red and white were seeking in their final tune-up, particularly against this opponent, the toughest they’ve yet faced in this tournament.
“I thought we came out a little flat at the start,” captain Mason McTavish admitted after the game was in the books. But as has been the case throughout his team’s run so far, it didn’t take long to right the ship, the undeniable skill of this group eventually taking over. “Obviously, we got better and better. We scored on our first shot, which is always a huge boost.”
His linemate Brennan Othmann was the one who pulled the Canadians back after that wobbly start, winning a battle down low to help funnel the puck back to defender Olen Zellweger, who wired the shot that Othmann redirected into the back of the net.
Still, the Finns pushed, hemmed Canada in its own zone, found a dazzling play of their own here and there. But whenever the door opened just a crack, Dave Cameron’s opportunistic squad burst through. First, it was Othmann, then Ridly Greig and Tyson Foerster linking up to burn the Finns for granting them a chance on the power play.
But no sequence more aptly showcased just how difficult these Canadians are to hold down than the one that came in the final minutes of the first period.
Once again, the Finns corralled Canada into its own zone, holding them there for over a minute, whipping the puck around trying to find an angle on Garand. Then, finally, briefly, the puck popped out to the neutral zone — in an instant, it was on McTavish’s stick, then on Connor Bedard’s.
And before netminder Leevi Merilainen could prepare for the sudden plot twist, Bedard had already walked in and wired a no-doubter, bar-down and in, the crowd erupting in delight behind him.
“We knew they were kind of jammed in there for one or two minutes, and then I saw Mac get the puck and I figured everyone was going to change,” teammate Ridly Greig said of the moments leading up to the electric goal. “And then I saw [Bedard] take off, and he snapped it under the bar there. Kind of unreal, you know? That never really happens at the end of a shift.”
“I didn’t even see it,” says Othmann. “I heard the ping, and then I looked up and he celly’d, so I figured it was something special, like always.”
McTavish, whose dish set up the tally from his young linemate that got the crowd on their feet, was at a loss for words trying to find new ways to describe Bedard’s brilliance.
“I don’t even know. You guys have seen him — there’s so many highlights. He’s elite,” the captain said. “His shot is just crazy — he doesn’t need that much power or energy to shoot. … I just saw him have a little break there and I just gave him the puck.”
“The kid’s something special,” added Othmann.
It’s that special something that has these Canadians looking so tough to beat — even here, in a game in which they went long stretches on the wrong end of the night’s momentum, that all-world skill burst forth when it was needed, and the day was done.
And it didn’t end with Bedard. A period later, it was Greig tucking in a rebound after the Finns iced the puck and gifted Canada an offensive-zone faceoff. Later in that same frame, it was McTavish punishing Finland for marching to the box once again, the captain burying a power-play one-timer to extend his tournament-leading scoring sum.
They were simply too much for the team across from them in this one. The question, though, is what happens when they come face to face with a team housing just as much all-world skill.
In McTavish’s eyes, that possibility means his team’s next game can’t look like this one, even if the night ended in a decisive 6-3 win.
“Obviously it’s an elimination game, anything can happen. I think we’ve got to come out way sharper, with more jump at the start, and dictate the pace from the start,” McTavish said.
Also troubling for the hosts was the mess they got into in the game’s final frame, with Canada racking up five penalties, granting Finland lengthy stretches of five-on-three play. Still, while they would’ve preferred a clean sheet, the job done by their penalty kill sent a message in its own right.
“A lot of penalties in the third, so we’ve got to clean that up. But I thought our penalty kill was elite today,” McTavish said. “So many guys blocking shots — that’s a great sign for a team that’s trying to win.
“Finland, they’re a great team. … Their power play was ridiculous, so the fact that our PK stood up there with one of the best power plays in the tournament is huge for us. It’s a great measuring stick just to see where we’re at.”
Of course, it won’t get any easier from here.
“Every team now is a good team,” said Othmann. “They made it this far. So, having that adversity and building that confidence up in our PK, in our special teams, in our overall game, is great.”
Whether it proves a valuable lesson learned at the right time or a precursor to a later undoing remains to be seen. Canada will get its first chance to answer that question Wednesday when they move on to the quarterfinals, one of two undefeated squads in the tournament, and yet, perhaps, with another level still to find.