HELSINKI — Well, this is new.
For as long as the world junior championship has been must-watch TV — a Christmastime tradition with games on Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve — Canada has dominated the tournament like no other.
They win. From 2002 to 2011, Canada played in 10 straight finals and went a stretch where it won five gold medals. Last year, the country crushed its competition, going undefeated and never even trailing by a goal in the tournament.
Time and again, the Canadians have been the favourites. And now, they are the underdogs.
After a 5-2 loss to Sweden on Thursday night, Canada finished the preliminary round with a very average 2-2-0 record — having needed a shootout to win one of their games — and seeded third in the Group A standings.
Canada’s record is worse than undefeated Sweden, the U.S., Russia and Finland, the team that the Canadians will play in a win-or-go-home quarter-final on Saturday. In this case, it is an accurate portrayal of how Canada has performed in the tournament.
Maybe that will change. After all, the preliminary round is just that — an introduction before the games start to really matter. Maybe this team of mostly 18-year-olds needed to get their feet wet and a couple of wake-up calls to gauge the competition level before responding with their best.
But based on how Canada has played thus far, there have to be legitimate concerns moving forward.
This game technically did not matter. Regardless of the score, Canada will play host Finland in the quarter-finals in a game that organizers cannot be happy about, considering one of the fan favourites’ journey will end there. But this final warm-up to the preliminary round was still significant.
After a rocky start to begin the tournament, in which they lost to the Americans and got a scare against the Swiss, the Canadians needed to find their game. They needed to prove to themselves, as well as their future opponents, that they were for real. They needed to show they could play for 60 minutes and actually challenge for a gold medal.
Early on, that was difficult to do.
An undisciplined Canadian team got into penalty trouble, taking four penalties in the first seven minutes. Against a high-scoring Sweden team that had been averaging 4.7 goals per game — even without injured top player William Nylander — it was a recipe for disaster.
Sweden made Canada pay, with Alex Nylander and Gustav Forsling each scoring power play goals to take a 2-0 lead. But just as they had done against Denmark and Switzerland after trailing in both those games, the Canadians played their best hockey when their backs were against the wall.
Rather than try to match Sweden’s skill, Canada resorted to a more physical game. The Canadians started finishing their checks and pressuring Sweden’s defenders to rush their passes and make mistakes.
With about four minutes left in the first period, Canada’s grind line of Travis Konecny, John Quenneville and Mitchell Stephens were rewarded for their effort. After hemming in Sweden with a series of hits, defenceman Thomas Chabot fired a shot on net and Stephens pounced on the rebound to make it 2-1.
Eventually, however, Sweden’s skill proved too much.
In the second period, 13th forward Brendan Perlini took a slashing penalty and once again Sweden made Canada pay with yet another power play goal, this time from Adrian Kempe. Sweden then made it a three-goal game in the third period on a goal from Anton Karlsson.
Mitch Marner scored a power play goal with 5:50 remaining in the game and in the dying seconds of the period, Sweden added an empty-net goal. By the end Canada had no answer for its opponents. The question now is whether that will change going forward.