VANCOUVER — It wasn’t a must-win game. The next one is. They all are from here on out.
The medal round is upon us at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship — beginning with Wednesday’s quarterfinals — and Canada’s road to defending gold on home ice became that much more challenging after suffering a 2-1 setback to Russia in Monday’s round-robin finale.
Now that road will have to go through Finland (2-2), while Russia (4-0) has earned an easier route against Slovakia (1-3) in the two quarters taking place at Rogers Arena — starting at 3:30 p.m. PT and 7:30 p.m., respectively.
Over in Victoria, Group B winner Sweden (4-0) faces Switzerland (1-2-1) at 1 p.m., followed by the United States (3-0-1) against the Czech Republic (2-2) at 5 p.m.
The semifinals are slated for Friday and the medal games go Saturday, all in Vancouver.
Canada (3-1) may still be the favourite to repeat, but it will take three straight victories over countries that are essentially on even footing in this tournament.
No more easy games and no more room for error.
“We have to be a little bit urgent, especially at the start,” said Captain Canada Max Comtois, whose team has opened the scoring in every game thus far — with Cody Glass netting the first goal against Russia just two minutes 20 seconds into the first period. But the Russians pushed back — Grigori Denisenko pulled them even on a power play at 5:21 — and pushed the pace for the rest of the opening frame, outshooting Canada 13-10 to start that first-place showdown.
“After the first goal, we kind of sat back and watched the game,” lamented Comtois. “We just have to play a better 60 minutes — more urgent in our action, more pucks to the net.”
Not that Canada made many errors against Russia. Markus Phillips admittedly “took the wrong angle” in defending Pavel Shen on his go-ahead goal 11 minutes into the third period that proved to be the difference, but it was a closely contested game that could have gone either way. The shots finished tied at 31-31, with Russia’s Pyotr Kochetkov making one more save than Canada’s Michael DiPietro in their goaltending duel.
“We were going to hit adversity at some point in the tournament,” said Phillips, who put on a brave face after getting beat wide for the gamer-winner. “But, realistically, we were going to have to face these teams at some point.”
Indeed, the seeding isn’t all that important going forward. Canada could have just as easily faced Finland for gold on Saturday — as predicted by this scribe to be the championship matchup ahead of the tournament.
Sweden is looking strong again, extending their round-robin winning streak to an astonishing 48 games — dating back to the 2007 tournament when they last lost, 3-2 in overtime to the U.S., on Dec. 21, 2006. But Sweden hasn’t fared as well in the medal round, with their only gold over that stretch coming in 2012 when they defeated Russia in the final, 2-1 in overtime.
That rematch could play out here, but the Americans will be a tough out — especially if they get Jack Hughes and K’Andre Miller back for the quarterfinals — and even the Czechs can’t be ruled out with the amount of firepower they have up front.
Switzerland and Slovakia are the long-shots at this stage, but the other six nations were all expected to contend for a medal — yet at least two of them will bow out in the quarters, including either Canada or Finland.
“We’re going to have to face another good team (in the quarterfinals), and if we have to face (Russia) again, we’ll be ready,” said Comtois.
Canada is two wins away from getting another shot at Russia. First up is Finland and, if successful there, Sweden would likely be next in the semifinals. If all four of the higher seeds advance from the quarters, Russia would meet the United States in the other semi.
Finland will be a tough test. They have two defencemen on loan from NHL teams in Henri Jokiharju, who has played some top-pairing minutes with Duncan Keith in Chicago, and Urho Vaakanainen from Boston. They also have a go-to line of potential future NHL stars in Eeli Tolvanen, on loan from Nashville, Aleksi Heponiemi and Rasmus Kupari — a trio that is comparable to Russia’s Denisenko, Klim Kostin and Vitali Kravtsov, who were a real handful for Canada. And Finland is backstopped by Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who ranks among the best goalies in the OHL — right up there with Canada’s DiPietro.
Finland is one of the younger teams in the tournament, relying on 2019 draft-eligible forward Kaapo Kakko in a prominent role and giving a regular shift to 2020 draft-eligible Anton Lundell. Kakko is projected to go second overall, but he’s been closing the gap on the aforementioned Hughes with a strong showing through the round robin in Victoria. Lundell is also expected to be a top-five pick in his draft year and could challenge Canada’s Alexis Lafreniere for first overall when that time comes. Lafreniere hasn’t had as much opportunity to shine here, but did manage to score a goal despite limited minutes in being deployed as the 13th forward.
As for Canada’s game plan under Tim Hunter, it’s more of the same and wouldn’t have changed much regardless of their quarterfinal opponent. Stick to what has worked thus far — Canada has still outscored their opposition 23-5 through four games, inflated by a 14-0 demolition of Denmark in their Boxing Day opener — and try to focus on the positives from their lone defeat, particularly the second-period effort against Russia.
Bottle that up and pour it out against Finland.
“I think we played a really good second (outshooting Russia 12-5), and that’s what we have to bring to our next game,” said Comtois. “We were more urgent in our actions.”
Urgency is one of the keys, agreed Canadian winger Owen Tippett.
“Once we kind of challenged the play more in the second period, it was a different game,” he said.
Consistency being another key, Tippett added.
It was a pretty good game (against Russia), but I think we have to figure out a way to get the little lapses out of our game and play a full 60 minutes. If we can fix those little lapses here and there, we should be good.
Unfortunately for Phillips, he had one of those lapses at the worst time and it got magnified when Canada failed to get the equalizer over the final nine minutes. But the first period, more so than the third, is what Canada hopes to fix — the fact they didn’t pour it on when leading 1-0.
“We kind of got outcompeted at parts in that hockey game,” said Phillips. “We got away from our game there in the first (after opening the scoring). We can’t have those mental lapses.”
Lesson learned, one would hope, since Canada can’t afford to make the same mistakes against Finland. This is their second chance and they won’t get a third chance — unless it’s in the third-place game, which nobody wants to be a part of.
It’s become gold or bust for Canada at the World Juniors and they have a long way to go in the medal round. It starts in the quarters against Finland — ideally with getting the first goal again and going from there . . . one shift, one period, one win at a time.