VANCOUVER — The critics will take aim at a lack of scoring, with consecutive 2-1 losses ending Canada’s tournament earlier than anticipated at the 2019 World Junior Championship.
That and a power play that went ice cold, going 0-for-8 in those defeats — 0-for-3 against Finland in the quarterfinal after an 0-for-5 showing against Russia. Perhaps due to a lack of practice, with Team Canada not taking the ice outside of games since Christmas.
Even Tim Hunter’s decision to tap his captain, Max Comtois, to take a penalty shot in overtime against the Finns will be hotly debated since he got stopped. For the record, Comtois was Canada’s lone returnee and the team’s leading goal-scorer in the tournament, with five.
Alas, there is always something to blame and plenty to second-guess when the end result isn’t gold for Canada — and especially with Canada failing to medal for the first time when hosting this under-20 tournament. On each of the previous 13 occasions, Canada had claimed gold, silver or bronze on home soil.
Making matters worse, Canada entered as the defending champion and expectations were through the roof at Rogers Arena, where 17,047 red-clad fans stood in stunned silence as Finland celebrated before chanting one more time for goaltender Michael DiPietro, then trudging for the exits — uncertain of returning for the semifinals and medal games now that Canada has been eliminated. The scalpers are certain losers there.
Team Canada, though, gave it their best and lost. Simple as that. They got beat on this day — by a fluky tying goal in the final minute of regulation, then an opportunistic overtime rush for the Finns after Noah Dobson’s stick exploded on an attempted one-timer at the other end. Toni Utunen, a Vancouver Canucks defence prospect, capitalized on that chance in firing a shot over the shoulder of DiPietro for the winner five minutes 17 seconds into the suspenseful 4-on-4 session.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) January 3, 2019
“I thought we played a great game from start to finish. We didn’t do that against the Russians and that was a lesson we had to learn,” said coach Hunter, referencing their round-robin finale that ended with the same result on Monday, albeit a regulation loss. “Today we came out and they didn’t let us down, they played hard for 60-plus minutes. It just didn’t work out.”
Chalk it up to a couple of bad breaks, not to anything Canada did wrong — or didn’t do right.
“It could go one way or it could go the other, if (Dobson’s) stick doesn’t break . . . but, yeah, tough one,” said defenceman Ian Mitchell, who netted Canada’s lone goal to open the scoring in the second period.
“It’s brutal because I thought we played a great third period. Honestly, we didn’t give them a whole ton of chances,” added the 19-year-old from Calahoo, Alta. “It’s just so tough to lose on two goals like that.
[miptheme_quote author=”Ian Mitchell” style=”text-center”]It’s just heartbreaking for all of us. It’s something that will definitely stay with me for a long time.[/miptheme_quote]
Meanwhile, Finland is moving on to face Switzerland in the semifinals, with the United States taking on Russia in the other semi.
Switzerland stunned Sweden 2-0 and the Americans downed the Czech Republic 3-1 over in Victoria, while Russia routed Slovakia 8-3 in Wednesday’s late quarterfinal here.
Vancouver will host the remainder of the tournament, with the semifinals slated for Friday and the medal games going Saturday.
“Switzerland has played very well in this tournament, so it’s going to be a tough opponent for us also,” said Finland coach Jussi Ahokas. “But we came here to win gold, and that’s the thing — you have to beat everybody.”
Beating Canada to advance was extra special, the Finns admitted.
“It was a huge victory for our team,” said Ahokas, whose squad also defeated Canada 5-2 in their final pre-tournament game on Dec. 23. “There’s no better situation in the world, to play against Canada and win them in their home soil.
[miptheme_quote author=”Jussi Ahokas” style=”text-center”]Everything was great. There was a (penalty shot) in overtime, then you win yourself. You can’t really write better drama than that.[/miptheme_quote]
The players were equally thrilled.
“It means a lot to beat Canada,” said Finnish forward Jesse Ylonen. “I’m very proud of my team, every player played very good, especially (goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen). He played excellent.
“It feels good, of course, very good.”
Here is a detailed recap from that quarterfinal and capsules from the other three:
Finland 2, Canada 1 (OT)
For the first time in this tournament, Canada failed to open the scoring in the first period. Finland didn’t find the back of the net either in a scoreless opening frame but did outshoot Canada 11-7 despite only getting one power play to Canada’s two.
Cody Glass had the best chance of the first period for Canada on their first man advantage but fanned on his one-timer and Luukkonen was able to get across in time for the save.
At the other end, Finland’s fourth line came the closest on a dominant offensive-zone shift that started with a reverse-check by Sami Moilanen on Canadian defenceman Evan Bouchard that led to a rebound chance at the top of the crease for Samuli Vainionpaa, but DiPietro kicked out his right pad for his best stop of the first period.
Canada did open the scoring in the second period — for the fifth straight game — when Mitchell pinched in and sniped a shot over the glove of Luukkonen just 1:30 into the middle frame. Mitchell’s first goal of the tournament came after Barrett Hayton’s one-handed poke at the puck redirected into Mitchell’s lane and he made no mistake on the top-shelf shot.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) January 3, 2019
Finland pushed back and generated several quality chances, but DiPietro continued to shine in net for Canada — stopping all 12 shots he faced in the second period and all 23 through 40 minutes. DiPietro’s biggest saves were off Nashville Predators top prospect Eeli Tolvanen, who tried to go five-hole on a partial break, and Valtteri Puustinen, who opted to shoot on a 2-on-1 chance that DiPietro stared down from above the blue paint. DiPietro did the same in challenging underager Anton Lundell earlier in the stanza, making another difficult save look relatively easy because of his aggressive positioning.
DiPietro was the busier of the two goalies, but Luukkonen made a key save late to keep it a 1-0 deficit for Finland, denying Nick Suzuki’s quick shot on a set-up from Morgan Frost in the final minute of the second period.
DiPietro and Luukkonen went save for save throughout the third period, with Luukkonen stopping a Brett Leason breakaway in which he tried to shoot five-hole before DiPietro blockered away a chance by Finnish captain Aarne Talvitie. DiPietro also had a couple notable saves off Rasmus Kupari as a goaltending duel played out between two of the Ontario Hockey League’s top netminders — DiPietro of the Ottawa 67’s and Luukkonen an import for the Sudbury Wolves.
“Luukkonen played a great game and that’s what you need, but I have to say Canada’s goalie was unbelievable also,” said Ahokas. “There was great goaltending in both sides.”
Canada also got a key save of sorts when Leason blocked Henri Jokiharju’s one-timer with two minutes to go. But the Finns kept pressing, getting Luukkonen to the bench for an extra attacker and finally getting a puck past DiPietro with 46.4 seconds left. That’s when Eeli Tolvanen’s centering attempt from behind the net banked off Aleksi Heponiemi’s ankle at the side of the crease and somehow pinballed by DiPietro to force overtime.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) January 3, 2019
“It was a lucky goal, but we were so unlucky for the first two periods, so I think we deserved it,” said Ylonen, adding he was nervous yet confident heading to the tiebreakers, which would have featured a shootout following 10 minutes of 4-on-4 overtime.
“I think we earned the bounce,” echoed Ahokas, whose team outshot Canada in every period and 34-25 overall (11-7, 12-9, 8-7 and 3-2 by frame). “We played really well, 60 minutes. We had those chances, and we’ve had quite a bit in this tournament and the bounces haven’t come and now it did.”
Canada managed to regroup and go back on attack to start the overtime, with Bouchard getting a step on Finland’s defence and getting hassled enough from behind to draw a penalty shot at the 1:14 mark.
Typically the player impeded on a breakaway is assessed the penalty shot, but under IIHF rules, Hunter was able to handpick his shooter and selected Comtois over Bouchard or anybody else. Comtois moved straight in, slowed down around the hashmarks and snapped a shot blocker-side, but Luukkonen stayed with him the whole way and delivered a game-saver with his right pad.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) January 3, 2019
Asked if he chose Comtois based on career success or observations from practice, Hunter responded: “Both. He’s really good in practice. We practise the shootout.”
Onward they went, back and forth for a few more minutes, until Utunen crisscrossed with Talvitie inside Canada’s blue line, taking a drop pass from his captain and releasing a shot that ramped up off the stick of Canadian forward Cody Glass and eluded DiPietro to crush the hearts of Canadians everywhere.
“I think that was his first goal in the whole season, so it came at the right time,” Ahokas said of Utunen, who indeed had not scored prior to this tournament with only one assist through 21 games with his Liiga club, Tappara, back in Finland. “He played very well and, of course, great goal.”
Luukkonen was as elated as anybody to see the red light come on and hear the Finnish goal song followed by their anthem.
“It’s great to see that a lot of our guys are scoring. Especially when it’s a defenceman in overtime, it’s cool,” said Luukkonen, who finished with 24 saves. “It was kind of like a flashback to me, to when Toni scored an overtime winner in the semifinals at the under-18s.”
DiPietro was the hard-luck loser — stopping 32 shots and still being named player of the game for Canada in defeat, though that was little consolation.
“It’s not fair for anyone. Mikey played great through the tournament and that’s why we played him until the end,” said Hunter. “He was our go-to guy and he showed it tonight. He’s got a great future ahead of him.”
Switzerland 2, Sweden 0
At Victoria, Luca Hollenstein backstopped Switzerland to a significant upset with a 41-save shutout in a 2-0 victory over Group B winner Sweden.
Sweden hadn’t been shut out at the World Juniors since 2006 and had extended their round-robin winning streak to an astonishing 48 games dating back to the 2007 tournament by defeating the United States in overtime, Finland, Slovakia and Kazakhstan to start the 2019 showcase.
Yannick Bruschweiler’s first-period goal stood up as the winner for Switzerland, with Luca Wyss getting the 2-0 goal in the second period before Hollenstein held the fort in the final frame.
United States 3, Czech Republic 1
At Victoria, Jack Hughes returned for the Americans and made an immediate impact — assisting on the game’s first goal, a slick set-up finished off by Noah Cates in the first period.
Josh Norris put the U.S. up by two in the second period before Martin Kaut cut the deficit to 2-1 with a power-play goal midway through the third period.
Alexander Chmelevski sent the Americans to the semifinals with an empty-netter in the final minute.
Team USA outshot the Czech Republic 41-19 as Cayden Primeau backstopped his third win of the World Juniors. Czech goaltender Lukas Dostal wrapped up his stellar tournament with 38 saves in a losing effort.
Russia 8, Slovakia 3
The Russians raced out to a 4-0 lead in the first period, ran it up to 7-0 in the second period and coasted to the victory.
Slovakia scored three times in the third period, including twice in the dying minutes, but they were no match for the Group A winner.
Russia got two goals from captain Klim Kostin and singles from Grigori Denisenko, Stepan Starkov, Alexander Alexeyev, Nikita Shashkov, Kirill Slepets and Ilya Morozov. Pyotr Kochetkov wasn’t tested a ton in the early stages but earned another win for Russia.
Slovakia’s offence came from defencemen Martin Fehervary and Michal Ivan as well as forward Milos Roman, who plays for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.