VANCOUVER - Safe is death. That’s an old John Tortorella motto, but it sure holds true today, especially as the game gets faster and more skilled. Canada found that out the hard way in the quarterfinal, losing to Finland in overtime 2-1 in a game that saw the Canadians take just 24 shots on net.
While this may not have been the most talented Canadian entry at the world juniors, this team should have gone further - the depth up front was solid and there was plenty of skill on the blueline, but particularly against Finland, that skill didn’t seem to be sprung.
There were exceptions, of course: Ian Mitchell got Canada’s only goal when he jumped up and took a Barrett Hayton feed in the second period. And, crushingly, Noah Dobson had a huge chance at the side of the net in overtime, only to have his stick snap in his hands. Otherwise, there was a lot of chipping the puck out of their own zone, which was disheartening to see, given how well players like Dobson, Mitchell and Ty Smith can skate with the puck.
“I guess it just kinda happened,” Mitchell said. “We had a pretty skilled group back there. After that first goal, I don’t know if we pulled up a bit, or what it was. Maybe there wasn’t a lot of positions to jump; I’m not sure.”
Give full marks to Finland for playing a solid game: they outshot Canada on home ice and got a huge performance in net from Buffalo Sabres pick Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. And a ‘D’ corps led by NHLers Henri Jokiharju (Chicago) and Urho Vaakanainen (Boston) kept the dangerous Canadians at bay.
“They’re a good checking team,” Mitchell said. “They were keeping us to the outside, we didn’t get a lot of inside looks. Their gaps were tight and they were tight in their ‘D’ zone coverage, too.”
But Canada should have won this game. Even without the bad luck of Dobson’s stick breaking, even without Maxime Comtois’ failed penalty shot, this was a winnable game. The Canadians just couldn’t get enough pressure to crack the Finns and they had the talent to do it.
I believe they played too safe. Owen Tippett (Florida) was aggressive in his rushes, but he didn’t have a lot of company. Chip-and-chase hockey is dead and while it’s not a sexy storyline, coaching matters a ton in this tournament and Canada didn't get any. Most disappointingly, coach Tim Hunter didn’t want to address these faults after the game. For example, Canada scored just once in the New Year’s Eve loss to Russia and once against the Finns. Could he think of anything the team could have done differently on offense?
“I wish I could,” he said. “I’m not going to reflect on what went wrong. That’s over, we’re moving on.”
Well, no, you’re not: Canada’s tournament is over. When asked about the lack of defensive activation, he cited Dobson’s chance in overtime and left it at that. Where’s the accountability here? Comtois - who was a bewildering candidate for that penalty shot - stood in front of the media forever, answering questions in both English and French. Michael DiPietro, who was great in net, didn't shy away from the press, either. They're the teenagers, Hunter is the adult, let's not forget.
In the end, Finland goes on to meet Switzerland in a surprising semifinal matchup. The Finns overcame adversity in the game and used the penalty-kill as motivation.
“We killed those penalties really well and in those moments, we turned it around,” Jokiharju said. “We stick together all the time on the ice and it was a huge win for us.”
The fact Nashville’s Eeli Tolvanen set up the tying goal after a slow offensive start to his tournament was huge for Finland and Tolvanen was excellent all game. The Finns believed they hadn’t been getting the bounces early in the world juniors, but they got them against Canada. The fact they cashed in two of them - with Vancouver prospect Toni Utunen getting the overtime winner on a shot that hit Cody Glass’ stick - was the difference in the game.