MALMO, Sweden — Six months ago, in Lake Placid, N.Y., Finnish goaltender Juuse Saros was asked about how he viewed Canada’s recent performances at the world junior championships. Canada hasn’t won gold since 2009 and last year in Ufa, Russia, they finished without a medal for the first time since 1998.
"You don't have to be God to beat them," said Saros in an early August interview with Yahoo Sports. "It gives hope that guys will beat them."
On Saturday, Saros will get a chance to test out his theory first hand when he starts for Team Finland against Canada in the semifinals of the world junior championships.
So how does he feel about facing Canada now?
His views on needing divine intervention to beat the Canadians have not changed.
“I think we have a good team,” said Saros on Friday after Finland’s practice. “Of course Canada is very good, but I think we have a good chance to win.”
“We are confident.”
As a team, the confidence level might be high, but on a personal level, top Finnish defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen has been struggling. The Finns had to rally from a two goal deficit to beat the Czech Republic in Thursday's earlier quarter-final game and as the only NHLer on the team, Ristolainen took the brunt of the blame from the fans. Despite missing three weeks before the tournament with a concussion and fighting through flu-like symptoms at the tournament, Ristolainen said the criticism was warranted.
“I haven’t been that good,” said the eighth-overall pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2013. “I played pretty bad (against the Czechs), but we have the day off today and me and the team will be ready (Saturday).
“I’ve tried to play simple and play my game, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
Just as Ristolainen has been struggling with his health through the tournament, so has Canada’s lone NHLer – Mathew Dumba. The Minnesota Wild defenceman was held out of practice on Friday afternoon with what head coach Brent Sutter called a maintenance day.
In Canada’s 4-1 win over Switzerland, Dumba went crashing hard into the boards and came up with a scraped face and injured knee. After the game he was seen limping, but when asked how he was doing he said he was “fine” and would be ready for Saturday’s semifinal.
Forward Charles Hudon also missed practice on Friday, but Sutter fully expects him to play in the semifinal game.
If Finland is going to have any chance against Canada, it will depend on good goaltending from Saros.
The fourth round pick of the Nashville Predators has a wealth of international experience and remembers playing against both Connor McDavid and Sam Reinhart at the world under-18 championship. McDavid was named as the best forward at the tournament in Sochi, Russia and Saros was the top goaltender for leading the Finns to the bronze.
“He’s definitely a good goalie,” said Reinhart. “We’re going to have to put a lot of pucks on him.”
The key for Canada – one that already has been beaten to death at the tournament – is to stay out of the penalty box. Sutter said his team as done a better job of staying disciplined of late, but noted in the game against the Swiss they had trouble in the third period taking some “penalties that you don’t want to take.”
He said against the structured Finnish game, they’d have to limit the power play opportunities.
“Every game you’re concerned about every team that you play here,” said Sutter. “It’s just the nature of the tournament.”
“They’re a gritty group, they’ll get some decent goaltending and they’ve got three forwards on their team that are as good as any in this tournament. You know they’re a team that’s going to come and come hard.”
Finland’s top line of Teuvo Tervainen, Artturi Lehkonen and Saku Maenalanen have combined for 18 points in the tournament, though Lehkonen missed two games with an injury.
To face Canada in a world junior semifinal after a dismal seventh place finish last year in Ufa, Russia is big news in Finland. The team’s play at the tournament has consistently been one of the most read stories in Finland’s largest newspaper Ilta-Sanomat.
With six returnees on the squad from last year, redemption has been on the mind of many – particularly Ristolainen. The new players in the Finnish dressing room say they’ve been told a number of times about the failures of last year.
“It’s a good bounce back,” said Saros. “There are a couple guys from that team and they’ve told us what they’ve done wrong there (in Ufa) and we have learned from that.”
So what exactly went wrong?
“One thing they said was that they slept too much,” said Saros, with a laugh.
He thinks this year it’ll be easier going up against Canada because they won’t have the same kind of lofty expectations the Young Lions had a year ago.
“It’s fitting for our team that we are kind of underdogs.”
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