Canada always seems to be a favourite to finish in the medals at the World Junior Championship, but they came into their quarterfinal against Finland as an unlikely underdog.
Finland had home-ice advantage, boasted the best line of the tournament in Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho, and Patrik Laine, and outscored their opponents 23-13 in the preliminary round, only losing to Russia. Canada, meanwhile, won just one game in regulation in the preliminary round and only outscored their opponents 13-12.
In a thrilling, back-and-forth contest, Jake Virtanen finally picked up his first point of the tournament, but it was his lack of discipline that ultimately may have cost Canada the game.
Virtanen started strong, looking like the type of player Canada expected him to be in this tournament. He repeatedly picked off pucks in the neutral zone and on the forecheck and used his strength to protect the puck and create chances. He also crushed Juho Lammikko with a big open-ice hit, something we didn’t see from him as much as expected, perhaps because of the larger ice surface.
Canada nearly took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission, but Finland got one back with 11 seconds left after a Brandon Hickey pass got away from Haydn Fleury behind Canada’s net. Early in the second, Hickey lost his footing and gave Antti Kalapudas a breakaway and he tied the game at 2-2.
Virtanen stepped up at that point, making his best play of the game. Skating in hard on the forecheck, he picked off an outlet pass and swung the puck out front for Lawson Crouse. Crouse whipped the puck past Veini Vehvilainen for the 3-2 lead. It was Canada’s third goal on just 10 shots and Vehvilainen was pulled for Kaapo Kahkonen.
Virtanen kept up his strong play, shortly after spinning off his check to drive the net, setting up Dylan Strome for a great chance and drawing a hooking penalty. After that, his game went off the rails.
On the subsequent power play, Canada had a chance to go on a two-man advantage after Mitch Marner was cross-checked from behind, but Virtanen negated the penalty with one of his own, grabbing hold of a Finnish player’s stick and dragging him down.
There’s no getting around it: it was a dumb penalty. Instead of a 5-on-3, where Canada could have taken a two-goal lead, it stayed at 5-on-4 and the power play ended without a goal. Finland then scored two quick goals to take a 4-3 lead into the second intermission.
The two teams traded goals early in the third period, with Marner scoring twice on the power play. Virtanen was on the ice for both goals, playing in the high slot on the power play where he had little opportunity to even touch the puck, let alone get a shot off. Still, he was a part of the top power play unit that went 2-for-4. But Virtanen’s worst moment of the game also came on the power play.
With the score 5-5 midway through the third, Canada was given an opportunity on the power play after Laine hit Strome from behind into the boards. One minute into the power play, however, Virtanen tripped up a Finnish player to take Canada off the man advantage, then made matters worse by taking an additional slashing penalty, putting Finland on the power play.
That came back to bite Team Canada, as Joe Hicketts took a bad luck delay of game penalty, shooting the puck over the glass at the other end of the ice. Finland scored on the 5-on-3, going up 6-5. That goal stood up as the gamewinner.
Virtanen wasn't alone in his lack of discipline. With 3-and-a-half minutes left, Marner negated a power play by punching a Finnish player in a scrum. Instead of an opportunity to tie the game on the power play in the final minutes, it was 4-on-4.
Virtanen finished the game with one assist, 3 minor penalties, and no shots on goal. He finishes the tournament with just that lone assist, no goals and 10 shots on goal in 5 games. If the Canucks sent him to the World Juniors hoping it would help his confidence, I can’t imagine that it worked.
For Team Canada, it halts a run of 17-straight trips to the semi-finals.
Canucks fans still have one prospect to cheer for, however, as Brock Boeser moved on to the semi-finals with Team USA after a dominant 7-0 win over the Czech Republic. Boeser had one assist in the win and has two assists and nine shots on goal in five games.