MALMO, Sweden — For the third straight year, Canada will be playing for bronze at the world junior championships.
Forward Jonathan Drouin, who had been on last year’s team that finished fourth, was particularly emotional. Captain Scott Laughton wore a blank stare as he tried to explain Canada’s 5-1 loss to Finland in the semifinal.
What went wrong?
“Pretty much everything,” said Laughton. “From penalties to neutral zone play to turnovers – I mean we just got beat. We got beat fair and square and it’s not like we deserved to win tonight.”
And they didn’t. A bad bounce on the boards in the first period resulted in a goal and after that a steady stream of Canadian players heading to the penalty box put them in a bind they couldn’t escape.
While Canada was still within striking distance in the second period, centre Nic Petan took a10-minute misconduct for abuse of official. That penalty was shortly followed by one from Drouin, who took his second misconduct of the tournament for checking to the head.
Head coach Brent Sutter and his players had been talking on an almost daily basis about the need to maintain discipline and stay out of the box. Against the Finns, they failed to put into practice what they had been preaching in almost every media scrum.
“Two of your better skilled players are sitting in the penalty box with 10-minute misconducts and it just wasn’t meant to be here,” said Sutter, who had previously coached Canada to gold in 2005 and 2006. “It was a tough, tough game in a lot of different ways.
“The whole night it just seemed like we froze in the moment. We never executed our game plan.”
Canada has not won gold in the last five years, which means the second-guessing and handwringing over the state of the country’s junior team began at the sound of the final buzzer.
“We are supposed to be one of the best hockey countries,” said Drouin. “I don’t think we’ve proved that in the last five years.”
In this one-game semifinal showdown, Canada was clearly beaten by the better team, but that’s not to say the country isn’t producing the same kind of talent that helped them win five straight gold medals from 2005 to 2009.
“(The media) and a lot of people in our country expect us to win every year just because we’re Canadians and rightly so because it’s part of our culture,” said Sutter. “We want to portray that it’s our game, but the reality is that junior hockey … across the world there are a lot of good, good teams. There are a lot of good players in each country and it’s shown in this tournament.
“It’s disappointing that we haven’t accomplished (winning) in the last five years but also it’s reality, too that we can’t be so narrow minded that we think that there are no other great teams or great players out there playing for other countries.”
Canada will have little time to dwell on their mistakes as they’ll face Russia in the bronze medal match on Sunday afternoon in Malmo.
"It's a game less than 24 hours later and you've got to do your country proud," said Laughton. "It's tough we're not playing for the gold, but we're still looking to get a medal and get back on track."
The Russians were beaten 2-1 by host Sweden in the other semifinal game which ended in a small brawl. Russia defeated Canada in overtime in the bronze medal match last year in Ufa, Russia. It was the first time in 15 years that Team Canada failed to come home with a medal of any colour. Returning defenceman Griffin Reinhart admitted having to play for bronze after losing a shot at gold was a difficult proposition.
"It always sucks," he said. "I don't know if it can suck any more than it did last year (not winning).”
In their game against Canada the Finns did an excellent job defensively, clogging up the ice for Canada and making it a rather easy night for goalie Juuse Saros with a 23 save effort.
“No one can say this was good luck for us,” said star defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen, of the Finnish effort. “We didn’t given them many scoring chances and we kept them out of our goal (area).”
They’ll need to be equally as good – if not better – if they want to upset the heavily favoured Swedes for the gold. Last year Finland finished a disappointing seventh in the tournament, which prompted many to dismiss them as a legitimate threat for a title – something the feisty Finns are fine with.
“We’ve got nothing to lose,” said Saros, 18, of the underdog label. “But we’re not satisfied quite yet.
“We are confident we can beat them.”
Unlike in Canada, expectations were not high in Finland for this team. The Young Lions have not won a medal at the world junior championship since 1998 and the fact that the team is now won win from a championship is surprising news back home.
“It’s pretty big,” said Saros, a Nashville Predators prospect. “People are waking up now that there’s a tournament actually going on here.
“Finns are pretty critical, but they like it when we win.”