December 28, 2014 - 3:01 PM
MONTREAL - Opening with a pair of one-sided wins was a confidence booster for Canada but now comes the first real test at the world junior championship: Finland.
Canada (2-0-0) enters Monday's game at the Bell Centre on a high after shutout wins over Slovakia and Germany, but the defending champion Finns (0-1-1) are a sharp step up in competition.
"They've yet to win a game, so they're going to be coming at us," forward Curtis Lazar said Sunday. "It'll probably be do or die for them.
"They really need to take a step in that direction, and we get the lucky draw of having to face them. We've got to try to weather the storm. They've got a great team all around and we have to be ready to play."
It has not gone well so far for Finland, which opened with a gutsy performance in a 2-1 shootout loss to the United States but then went south with a surprise 2-1 defeat to Slovakia after wasting a string of scoring chances.
Many of the same Finnish players, including defence ace Julius Hinka, captain Artturi Lehkonen and goalie Juuse Saros were riding high at last year's event in Malmo, Sweden, when they toppled Canada 5-1 in the semifinals before beating the Swedes to claim their first title since 1998.
They are sure to bring the same cautious, patience-testing game they always play to the rematch with Canada, which has seven players back from a year ago.
"They've got great goaltending too," added Lazar, one of the returnees. "We're going to have to get some good traffic in front of their goalie.
"Their defence does a great job of moving the puck and they've got some crafty forwards as well. So they're going to keep us on our toes, but if we play the way we can, we'll be fine."
Canada has more skill up front than last year's squad. So far, the goaltending has been perfect and the defence has been solid but for some hairy moments in the second period of Saturday's 4-0 win when the entire team lost its edge for a spell against Germany.
Zach Fucale, who needed to make only 12 saves in the opening 8-0 rout of Slovakia, will be back in goal after Eric Comrie picked up a 17-save shutout against the Germans.
Fucale was in the net for last year's loss to the Finns, who took the lead in the second period on a fluke goal by Joni Nikko after Honka shot the puck in along the boards and saw it take a funny hop in front of the vacated net.
Finnish checking and counterattacking took over after that. The loss guaranteed that Canada would go a fifth straight year without a gold medal.
"I wouldn't say it's fresh in my mind, but I remember what happened and I learned from it," said Fucale. "It'll certainly serve as a motivator for the game."
Coach Benoit Groulx, an assistant to Brent Sutter last year, doesn't want to dwell on what happened a year ago. He said both teams are different and this is a new tournament.
The Finns no longer have star forward Teuvo Teravainen, who had three points in the semifinal.
But they have slick forward Kaspari Kapanen, a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins who missed last year's event with an injury. Finland also has six-foot-three dynamo Jesse Puljujarvi, who may be their most dangerous forward even if he's only 16.
"We want to play in the now," said Groulx. "I know they have a good team, but we also have a good team. We expect a very good game."
Canada's advantages will be playing at home on an NHL-size rink and having a team brimming with confidence after two big wins.
Centre Nic Petan had six points in two games, while Robby Fabbri had four and Max Domi, Sam Reinhart, Connor McDavid and defenceman Madison Bowey each had three.
Domi, an Arizona Coyotes prospect who is the son of former NHL enforcer Tie Domi, grew up getting advice not only from his father but from his dad's friends, like superstars Mario Lemieux and Mats Sundin.
"I didn't really listen to my dad when he got mad at me for not shooting," Domi said with a laugh. "I'd always over-pass in minor hockey and he'd get on me and say, 'If you can't listen to Mario or Mats Sundin, then I don't know who else can tell you.' So I'd say all right. I had to figure it out pretty quick."
Groulx tinkered with his lines late against Germany by putting McDavid between Fabbri and Jake Virtanen, a Vancouver Canucks' first-round pick from Abbotsford, B.C., who is of Finnish descent.
The only Canadian forwards without a point so far are Nick Ritchie and Frederik Gauthier, an ace penalty killer who leads the tournament with an 84.21 faceoff win percentage.
Canada has killed off nine straight penalties so far, but Groulx feels improvements can still be made.
"Our PKers were good but we can still be better," he said. "We blocked many shots because we got in position to block shots. We still need improvement in our routes when we kill penalties, but I like the attitude of our PK guys."
As for Finland, Groulx is aware they will be a test for his team.
"They skate well, they have skills, they have a solid goalie and they play very good as a unit," said Groulx. "They're very good at blocking the middle of the ice and taking your time and space away, so it'll be a matter of us of managing the puck well and making sure we put ourselves in position to use our speed."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2014