VANCOUVER– With the World Junior Hockey Championship shifting to the quarterfinal stage, the pressure mounts for Team Canada. Playing on home soil brings its benefits. The raucous Canadian crowds have been a force in Vancouver, consistently providing enthusiastic support for every game. But ahead of Canada’s quarterfinal matchup against Finland, you can’t help but be a little concerned. The Canadians are coming off a tough 2-1 loss against Russia. Finland dominated Canada in the last pre-competition game.
But Team Canada coach Tim Hunter is not worried one bit. “We’ve gotten better every day, [and] every game,” says Hunter. “We’ve become a real tight group and the guys really care about each other. As we move along that’s only going to get better and bigger.”
Team Canada Will Need to Maintain Consistency for 60 Minutes
For moments in the New Year’s Eve contest against Team Russia, Canada showcased flashes of brilliance. This team has demonstrated their ability to put together fast starts, evidenced by Cody Glass‘ opening goal versus the Russians. But as the game wore on, the Russians began to dictate the play, using their speed and puck movement to create scoring opportunities. Consistency is something coach Hunter has been stressing to his players and if they are going to advance in this tournament, maintain a dominant forecheck is going to be crucial.
“I think when we push the pace, it makes any team sit back and see what’s coming for them,” says Florida Panthers prospect Owen Tippett. “We have the speed and physicality to play with any team and we know that if we push the pace it’s going to be a lot easier for us to play.”
Special teams is another facet of the game that Canada must improve on. Their power play is ranked 7th (20%), while their penalty kill is 5th (76.92%) in the World Junior Championship. Against the Russians, the Canadians went 0 for 2 on the power play, despite a plethora of chances in front of the net. The scoring opportunities must continue, but given the talent that Canada has, they need to finish and turn those chances into goals.
“These guys are growing up through this environment,” said Tim Hunter, “and being a team that doesn’t have a lot of experience in this, it’s a process. As a coach, you’re disappointed in [Monday] night, but by no means upset, because there’s still growth going on here.”
Finland Assuming “Underdog” Role Against Canada
At the 2016 World Junior Championship, Finland and Canada met in the quarterfinals. The Finnish crowds on Helsinki helped lift Team Finland over the top in a topsy-turvy 6-5 win. While Finland may not have Patrik Laine, they still possess a ton of skill that makes this quarterfinal no guarantee for Canada. But Finland coach Jussi Ahokas wasn’t afraid to share his thoughts on who the underdog is ahead of their Wednesday night matchup.
“All the pressure’s on Canada,” Finland’s head coach stated. “We don’t have the pressure. They have all the pressure in the world with them. So, we’ll go there and have fun and play good hockey as a team. It will be a great night for us tomorrow.”
With Canada losing 5-2 to Finland in the pre-competition game, they will rely on goalie Michael DiPietro to be their x-factor if they want to advance to the semifinals. The Vancouver Canucks goalie prospect isn’t afraid of producing in big moments. At the 2017 Memorial Cup, he went 4-0-0 with a 0.932 save percentage, leading his Windsor Spitfires to championship glory. It is these experiences that DiPietro will fall back on as he tries to lead Canada to its third consecutive semifinal appearance.
“I’m a big believer that pressure is what you make of it and if you let it consume you, then obviously you’re going to be clenching your stick and not feeling comfortable in next and you won’t perform,” DiPietro stated. “But if you embrace it, you can have more success.”
Canada can only look as far ahead as Wednesday night’s quarterfinal matchup against Finland. Every time Canada has played the World Juniors on home soil, they have always medalled. The objective is simple for the young Canadians…win and you are guaranteed a shot at a medal.