Team Canada’s under-20 world junior team proved yet again that even a stacked roster loaded with first-round draft picks is susceptible to an unexpected collapse. Last year’s gold medal notwithstanding, the Canadians’ late-game shortcomings at the tournament they used to dominate have become somewhat of a trend in this decade — perhaps none more painful and disappointing than what transpired in Vancouver on Wednesday night.
In one of the most shocking finishes in WJC history, Finland rallied with a tying goal in the final minute of regulation and an overtime winner to eliminate Canada, 2-1, in front of a stunned partisan Canadian crowd. It marked the first time that Team Canada did not earn a medal in the 13 times they hosted the popular annual prospect event.
Picked by many experts to repeat as champions, the Canadian national junior team never seemed to get their offense into gear after a 14-0 drubbing of lowly Denmark in their opening game of the preliminary round. Canada scored only 10 goals in its final four games, with only two combined in consecutive losses to Russia and the Finns.
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So what exactly happened? The easy answer is that Canada was in fact outplayed by a talented Finland squad. Or simply put — the better team won. But those statements, as factual as they may be, don’t go over well with ardent Canadian fans and critics, who have been led to believe that anything short of WJC gold is an abject failure, and preparing for and executing the postmortem blame game is equally as important as the tournament itself.
Game over. Finland eliminated Canada from the #WorldJuniors in a wild OT. pic.twitter.com/YiFqYokJuU
Finger-pointing at individuals, however, is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to the cold, harsh reality that when it comes to the world juniors, Canada no longer is the world’s dominant hockey power. Sure, captain Maxime Comtois’ missed penalty shot in overtime, followed by Noah Dobson’s stick breaking on his one-time attempt at a yawning cage, were critical setbacks immediately prior to Finland’s Toni Utunen scoring the game winner. But the Canadians collectively proved they were unable to dictate the tempo in either of their final two games before ultimately surrendering late, backbreaking goals. That fact cannot be overlooked.
They’ve won WJC gold only twice in the 10 years since their impressive run of five straight titles between 2005 and 2009. In fact, Canada has medaled in only three of the last seven World Juniors, while the Russians and Americans have earned five and four, respectively, and that’s with both teams still alive for another medal from this year’s tournament.
What’s more disconcerting is that four of the last five events have been held in either Canada itself, or Buffalo, which sits minutes away from the Canadian border. A significant home-ice advantage coupled with an optimal travel and practice schedule has done little to help Hockey Canada present its under-20 program as the best in international hockey.
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Did Canada overlook Finland after hearing earlier on Wednesday that it would be Switzerland awaiting them in the semifinals after top-seeded Sweden was knocked out? Neither head coach Tm Hunter nor any of his players will ever admit that publicly. But human nature is an aspect often overlooked in any competitive sport, and there’s always the chance that the level of desperation may decrease knowing that one’s path to the gold medal game suddenly became noticeable easier, at least on paper. But one mustn’t assume the Canadians took their foot off the gas pedal upon learning of Sweden’s ouster, simply because it never looked like they were playing elimination-game intensity to begin with.
Overall, the efforts in the losses to Russia and Finland appeared average by Canadian standards. Although Canada’s heavy, relentless forecheck was present from the onset, the support from its normally quick-thinking defenders ready to step up in the neutral zone to spark the transition to offense wasn’t there. This resulted in a bigger neutral zone for the enemy to navigate through, and making matters worse was Canada’s inability to win puck battles or outrace opponents to loose pucks.
Both the Russian and Finnish defenseman used poise and mobility to consistently beat back pressure in the defensive zone and trap overcommitted Canadians with quick, crisp passes. Time and again, Canadian goaltender Michael DiPietro bailed out his mates by making critical stops with the score tied or with Canada clinging to one-goal lead. The inability of his own team’s forwards to tilt the ice towards the opposing goaltender was evident in the third period of Monday’s 2-1 defeat to Russia, which took advantage of defensive-zone breakdowns to score the tie breaking goal in the 3rd period. The loss denied Canada the chance to win their group and draw a more favorable quarterfinal matchup against lower-seeded Slovakia.
Nonetheless, Canada’s World Juniors ended in disappointment, and the manner in which it ended certainly compounded the heartache. But before you break out the pitchforks, keep in mind the following factors that most certainly contributed to Canada’s early exit:
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There were several warning signs prior to the tournament that the 2019 version of Team Canada’s under-20 team would have more of an uphill climb toward a medal than previous editions.
For starters, 13 players on their WJC roster born in 1999 were on the under-18 team that did not medal at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, thus ending an eight-year gold medal streak. In the preliminary round of that tournament, Comtois took a costly penalty late in the third period against Russia that led to the tying goal by Ivan Chekhovich before Klim Kostin won it seconds later. The Hlinka is an elite, best-on-best competition that allows Canada to send its best draft-eligible players without disrupting the Canadian Hockey League’s regular season schedule, and not even earning a medal in a tournament they always dominated did not go unnoticed by hockey’s international community.
Later that April, that same group at the under-18 world championships placed fifth — Canada’s worst finish in seven years. Ten players who were dressed for Wednesday’s defeat also played in a humbling 6-3 loss to the Finns in that tournament.
2. Bad luck
The Canadians had an unconscionable number of breaks go against them in the loss to Finland.
Aleksi Heponiemi’s fluky tying goal late in the third period pinballed in off his left shin after Eeli Tolvanen’s desperation centering attempt. Moments earlier, Tolvanen’s bad-angle backhander from the right corner hit the side of the net and caromed right back to him in stride, thus allowing him to make a second attempt toward the net.
The chances of both plays happening within a matter of seconds are remote, and there was nothing more Canada could have done to prevent such an unfortunate sequence from ruining their medal hopes.
In overtime, a breaking Evan Bouchard was hooked by Tolvanen just as he attempted to shoot, leading to the aforementioned penalty shot by Comtois. The goalie usually has the advantage in this situation, and Comtois’ decision to go either low to the stick side or five-hole was appropriate in that goalie Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen was revealing a sizable gap in the lower half. It missed sneaking under his right pad by only an inch or two, and credit the goalie for possibly expecting it.
??’s Maxime Comtois is denied by ??’s Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen on the penalty shot. #CANvsFIN #WorldJuniors #REPRESENT pic.twitter.com/Q15GFGyP77
You see, Comtois has a very accurate wrist shot and favors going five-hole, as he’s proven in shootout attempts in the QMJHL, last year at Canada’s 2017 WJC camp, and during his time this season with the Anaheim Ducks. Besides, what Comtois did (or didn’t do) with his golden opportunity would have been downgraded to a footnote in World Juniors history had Dobson not had one of the most unfortunate equipment malfunctions you’ll ever see in the midst of that big of an opportunity.
Again, these are examples of bad breaks that happened to excellent prospects and were of the variety that championship teams generally avoid during a march to a title.
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3. Power outage
Canada’s power play operated at a paltry 16.7 percent (3 for 18), which easily was their lowest success rate in over a decade.
It seemed apparent that head coach Tim Hunter was married to a top unit that went scoreless over their last 16 opportunities with the man advantage. But anybody who’s followed the game long enough knows that power play effectiveness can be inconsistent for both the good and bad teams, and that there rarely is a silver-bullet remedy to immediately fix a tight-gripped unit playing in a short tournament.
Yes, it’s perfectly fine to assume any power play with the likes of Evan Bouchard and Ty Smith running the points would achieve more success than what actually happened. But again, the roster was heavy on playmakers and light on pure finishers, and the thin age group didn’t leave Hockey Canada with many options. Having a hulking net-front presence and power-play specialist like Detroit Red Wings center Michael Rasmussen may have helped, as would have allowing a heady forward like Joe Veleno to man one of the points.
Not being discussed, however, is the quality of Canada’s opposing penalty killers. The Russians, Czechs and Swiss owned three of the tournament’s four best units while down a man, and all three rosters were dotted with CHL import players that have familiarity with Canada’s big guns.
Sure, we can go back and forth with a chicken vs. egg argument that one unit’s success was facilitated by the other’s struggles. But scoring for every WJC team — both at even strength and on the power play — is down across the board compared to last year’s tournament. Through this year’s quarterfinals, teams combined for four goals or less in 11 of the 25 games. In 2018, only one of the first 25 contests saw two nations fail to tally five or more goals.
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