Canada passes first tough test at world juniors as medal round looms

Canada celebrates the team's win over Finland after a game at the World Junior Hockey Championship. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — They have been referred to, this pesky country of hockey hard workers, as a stone in every nation’s shoe that dares go into hockey battle against tiny — but mighty — Finland. Smaller in population than either Quebec or Ontario, the Finns have won three of the past seven world junior titles.

Well, sometimes the book is better than the movie.

If this was truly Canada’s first big test at the 2021 tournament, then they passed it like a kid that’s homeschooling — with the internet at their fingertips.

Dominant? The 4-1 final score does not begin to tell the tale of how simply possessing the puck for more than one pass in a row was a Herculean task for the Finns in the opening 40 minutes.

The shots on goal in Period 1? How does 17-1 sound, in favour of the red team?

“We were real fired up to get out there,” said Dylan Cozens, who scored the first and last goals of the evening. “I think that was our best period in the tournament so far.”

The shots were 35-7 after 40 minutes — 40-19 overall — and Canada cruises into the quarterfinals with a perfect 4-0 record, yet to be truly tested by a team that one might see as their equal.

“Team Canada, “ marvelled Finnish coach Antti Pennanen, “they were so good at the start of the game.”

Canada outscored its opponents 33-4 in the group stage. They allowed just 67 shots over four games, or 17 per game.

Unless Finland was playing rope-a-dope, it appears there are only three teams that can test Canada here, and they reside on the other side of the draw: Russia, the United States and Sweden. Canada will likely see only one or two of those teams, as it is the Czech Republic that awaits in Saturday’s sudden-death quarterfinal.

If Canada plays as well against the Czechs as they did Thursday versus Finland, they’ll win by five or six.

Buzz, Buzz, Buzz

Canada’s forecheck came like the tides — line, after line, after line. Like they were being attacked by a hive of bees, poor Finland must have felt like the only solution was to grab the puck and jump into a lake somewhere.

It is exactly the game head coach Andre Tourigny wants from his charges, and you could sense the confidence in his voice that the lessons he has been teaching have seeded, and are now growing roots.

“I said to our players, ‘You can be happy about a performance, or you can be proud of your performance. Both are good, but being proud of your performance is even better,’” Tourigny said after the game.

His players are catching what he’s pitching, and when the result produces a game this dominant against a good team like Finland, it builds that bond between player and coach.

“We came out and played our best game so far,” said Cozens, who has six goals and 11 points to lead Team Canada in both categories. “They had a tough time getting out of their zone… and it really showed our identity. Speed — we created a lot of turnovers and went the other way really quick.

“We’ve been a little bit (on the) perimeter so far. We really got inside tonight.”

Bowen Byram, the smooth-skating defenceman who looks like a lock to play 1,000 NHL games, agreed.

“Today was our best 60-minute effort. In the first two periods we were all over them,” he said. “It showed our identity. We’re happy, and on to the quarters.”

Yes, something truly did click for Canada on Thursday, perhaps due to the threat of defeat. Finland, it seems, made Canada dig a little deeper than Germany, Switzerland or Slovakia could, and what the Canadians found was golden.

“When you have that kind of depth, you need to exploit it,” Tourigny explained. “You play at a pace where you push the game to a level, and you can not do it for 45 or 50 seconds. You need to keep your shifts short — that’s 30, 40 seconds — then it’s next man up. Having four lines playing with a lot of pace, that’s what the boys are doing right now. Every time they go on the ice they play with a lot of energy, a lot of effort.

“They’re going balls out. That’s the way we’ll have success.”

A Finnish Finish

Somehow, someway, the Finns found themselves with their goalie pulled and pressure in the Canadian zone in the dying moments of the game. Just one shot away from a one-goal game with two minutes to play.

It was so Finnish: Dominated for 45 minutes, the score was still only 3-1. One good shot and it would have been 3-2, and then, who knows?

Alas, Cozens stole a puck and found the empty net, and there would be no Helsinki Heroes on this night.

“The start of the game, we weren’t ready at all. Team Canada was so good,” said head coach Pennanen. “They won all the battles, the loose pucks. We tried to improve those things, and I think we did. But we had some problems at the start of the game.

Team Canada was so good today. So many good players, well-coached… Such a good team.”

The Finns barely touched the puck in the first period. It was a shock. This wasn’t supposed to be so one-sided.

“They like to shoot the puck a lot — I had to be focussed all the time,” said starting goalie Kari Piroinen. “We knew what they’re going to do. But today we couldn’t find a way.”

Finland has won three of the last seven World Juniors, not bad for a country whose population is 5.5 million people. But they’ll have to find a completely new level to see Canada again — the game the Finns played Thursday won’t get them out of the quarterfinals.

“We didn’t play so good as last game (versus Slovakia),” admitted defenceman Mikko Kokkonen. “We didn’t get pucks out early, and we had to defend longer. We didn’t have the energy (to go on offence).”

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