Finland a big step up in competition for Canada
OK, enough of the potato skins and lettuce wraps.
Time to move on from the finger-food appetizers to the main course.
It's Canada versus Finland for top spot in Group A at the world junior hockey tournament on New Year's Eve after the steady diet of Germany and Switzerland and Slovakia. Canada pummelled those kids 29-3, on equal footing only at the game's first faceoff.
The team winning Group A gets the fourth-place finisher in Group B in the quarter-final Jan. 2, normally a soft landing, but maybe not in this 2021 tournament. It's wide-open in the other pool consisting of the Swedes, Russians, USA and Czechs.
Canada-finland shapes up to be a fair fight. Both sit at 3-0.
“We're happy where we are, but it's going to get harder and harder every single game from here on out,” said Canadian forward Dylan Cozens, who is alternating the C with Bowen Byram after Kirby Dach broke a wrist.
“Every game so far has been a stepping stone and this will be our toughest test. I'm sure there will be lots of people watching across the country. The New Year's Eve game is always a big one.”
“Yeah ... I've watched a lot of them and we always had people over,” said Kaiden Guhle, the Canadian defenceman who lives about 20 minutes from Rogers Place.
The Finns don't get the respect they deserve internationally. There's been more talk about Russia and Sweden, USA and Canada in this junior tournament. More about Vasily Podkolzin and Philip Broberg, Trevor Zegras and Cozens than Anton Lundell, the Finnish captain who has six points in three games. He looks like he might be a Mikko Koivu type when he gets to the NHL.
“Three golds at the world junior since 2011, two golds, two silvers at the men's worlds ... and they remain the Rodney Dangerfield of hockey,” tweeted Risto Puckarinen, the hockey alter ego of well-travelled journalist Risto Pakarinen.
No argument there. They're always a tough out.
They blasted the Slovaks 6-0, outshooting them 50-12 on Wednesday.
“We had a good first period, but I think we played even better in the second and third,” said Lundell, who had a goal and two assists. “I think that's what we want to do as well against Canada.”
Canada has given up 48 shots in three games. It's the exact same count for Finland.
Canada has scored their 29 goals on 119 shots, likely an unsustainable 25 per cent success rate. The Finns have their 15 goals on 153 shots, a much more normal 10.5 per cent. Canada has five goals on 10 power-play attempts, the Finns are 4-for-12.
Lundell, Florida's first-round pick in 2020, leads the Finns with his six points.
Cozens, Buffalo's eighth-overall pick in 2019 and Quinton Byfield, the second-overall pick by the Los Angeles Kings after Alexis Lafreniere went to the Rangers in October, both had that in one game; Cozens against Germany, Byfield against Switzerland.
With every Canadian forward a first-round pick, obviously they've got the four-line depth edge against everybody. Byfield has seven points. Philip Tomasino, a 13th forward to start the tournament, has six. Peyton Krebs, Connor Mcmichael, Dawson Mercer, Cole Perfetti and Alex Newhook each have five.
In net, we're not sure how good Devon Levi is because he's played eight periods while facing only 42 shots, stopping 40. The Finns got a shutout from Kari Piiroinen against Slovakia but they've used Roope Taponen, too. We'll see who starts.
While Cozens had three goals and three helpers against Germany, Byfield had two scores including a dandy waist-high deflection and set up four more goals against the Swiss. They couldn't handle his size and the Finns are much more physical, but Byfield, the 13th forward at age 17 on the gold medal-winning team last year who didn't play a shift in the final because they went with older guys, is now the big-body Canadian forward with Dach needing surgery. He worked out with Gary Roberts over the summer and put on about 12 pounds of muscle and now weighs in at 216.
“We needed somebody to step up and he did,” said Cozens.
“He's so strong along the walls, in the corners, puck battles. He's a man amongst boys, outmuscling everyone and he's got the quick hands to go with it,” said Cozens.
Byfield only had one assist in the pasting of Germany and people were wondering where he was, but he was very physical in the preliminary exhibition against Russia and was all over the score sheet against the smaller Swiss.
“Not playing hockey for eight months, I had to ease myself into it and I've finally found my footing,” he said after the 10-0 blowout of Switzerland.
No surprise to his coach Andre Tourigny, even with some tough love in camp.
“He's really coachable, pays attention and really wants to do what's right,” said Tourigny. “In Red Deer, I said I was going to be really hard on them (returning players), that I would demand more of them. From the first, I was on Q. I was demanding a lot, and he responded.”
Cozens has been Canada's best forward.
“I've worked on my explosiveness, my first three steps (during the pandemic pause). I'm more confident on the zone entries, trying to create offence out of nothing ... beating a guy to a puck, spinning off him, taking a lane to the net or passing it,” he said.