HELSINKI—Jake Virtanen is used to representing Canada internationally. He’s pretty much a regular since the under-17s.
But no Canadian team he’s been on has struggled like this one at the world junior hockey championship.
“This is the most adversity I’ve ever faced,” said Virtanen. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Exciting? To face adversity?
“I think so,” said Virtanen. “It can’t be not exciting. When you’re down as a team, it’s a learning experience, but you build off that. Nothing bad has happened. I know the round robin was tough losing a couple of games. Now we’re ready. It’s going to count from now on in.”
Virtanen is particularly embarrassed he’s been held off the score sheet as one of four returning players from last year’s gold-medal teams, and the only Canadian to come from the NHL to play. He is taking the approach — like many of his teammates — that he is due, just like the team is, for a good game.
“Things haven’t been going our way as a team,” he said. “Chances will happen. When the times come, it will come.”
It can’t happen soon enough. Canada plays Finland on Saturday at 11 a.m. Eastern, the winner advancing to the semifinals, the loser going home.
The Finns, who won the tournament two years ago, have a high-powered offence and a certain confidence about them being the hosts and having the backing of 12,000 cowbell-ringing fans each night.
Three Finns — Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine — lead the tournament in scoring as well as awe-inspiring plays.
“I think they’re brothers somehow, just not telling us,” said Finland teammate Kasperi Kapanen. “They just know where each other are. I just laugh on the bench when they score. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It could be an intimidating feeling for the Canadians, who moved to the Hartwall Arena from the smaller Helsinki Ice Hall. The Hartwall ice is, at 100 feet wide, six feet wider to conform to KHL standards.
“They definitely would be the favourites,” said Canada coach Dave Lowry said of the Finns. “It’s going to be a challenge. There is going to be pressure. Pressure on both sides. We just have to bring our best game.”
There was a fair bit of gamesmanship on Friday as to who the underdog and who the favourite should be going into Saturday’s game.
“I would say Canada is never an underdog at these tournaments,” said Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen. “They are always the favourites. We are underdogs. They are world champions last season. They’re a great team.”
The Canadians certainly haven’t played that way. New line combinations were again used in practice Friday — Brendan Perlini was inserted into the top line with Brayden Point and Mitch Marner. A decision on the starting goalie will be made Saturday morning.
Some Canadian players — used to big minutes and important roles on their junior teams — haven’t adapted well to roles assigned to them by Lowry, although it’s not for a lack of trying.
“Guys talk about playing a role that they’re given and guys have tried to do that,” said defenceman Joe Hicketts. “But there are times in games when old habits, your instinct comes back and you want to cheat to that offensive side. That’s when we get in trouble.”
The Canadians, as a whole, haven’t performed to expectations. But the team feels it is about to.
“We’re excited to get going,” said Hicketts. “We’re into a one-game elimination scenario so it’s about getting our game at a level to compete with one of the best teams in the tournament.
Hicketts is one four Canadians who have returned from last year’s team. Like Virtanen, he believes the adversity — two losses and a tough win against Switzerland — is making them stronger.
“You learn how to overcome adversity,” said Hicketts. “This isn’t the first time this has happened with this group. It’s something we’ve grown up with.”
Canada and Finland By The Numbers
GOALS FOR FINLAND — 23
GOALS FOR FINLAND CANADA — 13
FINLAND — 8-for-16 (50 per cent)
CANADA — 4-for-14 (29 per cent)
FINLAND — 10-for-15 (67 per cent)
CANADA — 6-for-11 (43 per cent)
FINLAND — 13 (3.27 GAA)
CANADA — 12 (2.97 GAA)