HELSINKI—Team Canada: Underdogs.
The Canadian men’s junior hockey team — the defending world champions — find themselves in very unfamiliar territory heading into Saturday’s win-or-go-home quarter-final. They are the third-seed and will face second-seeded Finland.
They won’t be the “home” team with last change. They won’t be the team riding the momentum and carrying the confidence of a solid preliminary round.
So what are they?
“We’re major underdogs,” said defenceman Joe Hicketts. “Finland is one of the top teams in the tournament. And we knew that coming in. It’s going to be about getting our game in order.”
The preliminary round was supposed to do that, but coach Dave Lowry has yet to settle on line combinations. They are a team with more questions than answers, with more doubt than confidence. Goaltending is an issue, as neither McKenzie Blackwood nor Mason McDonald has inspired much confidence.
Scoring, discipline and defence remain problem issues. The Canadians have been out-muscled by Switzerland, outplayed by the Americans and, on Thursday, fell to the more skilled Swedes, who beat them 5-2 to take top seed in the group.
“It’s a quick recovery here,” said Canadian forward Travis Konecny, named Canada’s top forward in Thursday’s game. “We try to forget those games that we’ve lost. We’ve got to turn it around here and just start focusing on the elimination rounds now.
“It’s a whole new tournament now, it resets and any team can win at any time.”
Well, not quite.
Canada’s opponent is Finland, who boast the three top scorers in the tournament and the support of 12,000-plus a game at the bigger Hartwell Arena, which has this event on track to be the best-attended world juniors on this side of the Atlantic.
“We’ve got fans behind us cheering loud for us who are going to be at that game, too,” said Mitch Marner, who scored Canada’s second goal against Sweden. “We’re staying positive. That’s the main thing. We’re focusing on the elimination round. These games meant nothing. You’ve got to focus on the ones that are ahead.”
It was the first time Canada lost twice in the preliminary round since 1998, when they finished seventh. This year, Canada had the third-worst record of the eight team’s that advanced, better only than Denmark and Slovakia.
“Forget about it,” said centre Dylan Strome. “New Year, no one cares about the round robin. It doesn’t matter if you went 4-0, 1-2-1, 1-1-2, I don’t even know what we were. It’s about Finland and it’s about the next game.
“I don’t think you’ve seen the best of this team. I think you’re going to see that in the quarter-finals and building through the rest of the tournament.”
The outcome of the Canada-Sweden game was meaningless to the standings. Sweden had clinched first overall and Canada knew it was stuck in third before the puck was dropped Thursday. But the loss was concerning given the Canadians have yet to play a complete game.
Canada has had problems getting on a roll here, being physically outplayed and being too cute with the puck. On Thursday, it was penalties that did Canada in, with Sweden scoring three times on the power play.
“I think we’re a little frustrated in ourselves,” said Blackwood. “We know that we’re a better team than we shown on the ice and I think we’re going to have a breakout game.”
The Canadians have reason to hope.
“We’re Team Canada,” said Konecny. “They’re going to be scared to play us and I think they should be. It’s going to be a physical game.
“I know they’ve got some young guys who can score goals but we’ve got some older guys that can score goals. It’s going to be a high-paced game and physical and the crowd’s going to be crazy, but we’ll be ready.”