On Day 3 of the World Junior Hockey Championship, Canada lost 6-0 to Russia.
It was as lopsided as the score makes it sound. Russia got on the board with a goal just over a minute after the opening face-off and never look back.
A game like that in a tournament that sails along as quickly as the World Juniors does can take you right off course. If you don’t react the right way, it can downright run you aground.
Canada kept their ship upright and now as they continue preparations for a semifinal matchup with Finland on Saturday, what happened against Russia has not been forgotten. As Team Canada General Manager Mark Hunter sees it, the result has been put to use.
That day Canada was not, but it was only their second game of the round-robin. At that point there was time to get readjusted. Hunter says that process started with the coaches.
“I think they did a good job in regrouping the players and getting them focussed again,” he said.
That focus led to a tidy and controlled 4-1 victory over Germany on Dec. 30 and then a dominant 7-2 victory over the Czech Republic in front of a raucous home crowd in Ostrava on New Year’s Eve. That game saw Canada’s power played ignite as it scored five of the seven goals.
Canada connected twice more on the man advantage in their quarter-final matchup with Slovakia.
“I think our coaching staff has done a good job on special teams,” said Hunter. “Hopefully our team can continue to build and improve our play.”
Now they sit one win victory away from the opportunity to play for a gold medal, knowing that they faced some early adversity and came through it.
Canada has outscored their opponent 16-4 in the three games they have played since.
Each of those wins came against teams that have combined to win gold just twice since 1977 when the tournament began. Both of those championships were won by the Czech Republic in 2000 and 2001.
Canada’s semifinal opponent has won the World Junior title more than any other country since 2014. Finland has captured gold three times. Canada has won twice and the United States won in 2017 in Montreal in a shootout over Team Canada.
Finland was not considered a favourite coming into 2020 in Ostrava and Trinec, but they have mimicked a style that has drawn success in all kinds of international tournaments. They are are selfless, hard-working and extremely patient. Finland’s quarter-final victory over Team USA saw them score the only goal of the game 44 minutes and 23 seconds into it. Justus Annunen did the rest making 29 saves in the Finnish net.
Canada and Finland are meeting in the medal round for the second year in a row.
In 2019 Canada held a 1-0 lead with less than a minute remaining in a quarter-final matchup when Finland tied the game. In overtime a big chance for Team Canada’s Noah Dobson was foiled by a broken stick and the game winner landed in the Canadian net moments later.
This time the stakes are even higher.
Alexis Lafreniere returned to the Team Canada lineup for their quarter-final victory over Slovakia after suffering a knee injury in the loss to Russia that looked very serious. It potentially could have seen the consensus number one pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft held out of the rest of the tournament even just as a precautionary measure.
Lafreniere not only played against the Slovaks, he scored a goal and added an assist.
Mark Hunter knows that the semifinals take you to another level at the World Juniors. Every team remaining in the tournament owns an incredibly talented lineup. Hunter knows that means you need to make the most of an ingredient outside of your own skill level.
“You can have all the skill and speed you want, but you need will,” says Hunter.
Will is something that both Canada and Finland have demonstrated during this year’s World junior Championship. They will decide who has more of it when they meet at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Sweden will face Russia on Saturday at 9 a.m.