Canada fell to Sweden 5-2 (Photo by Roni Rekomaa/AFP/Getty Images)
The world junior squad showed flashes of gumption against Sweden but fell far short of a 60 minute effort. In a tournament performance marked by mediocrity, that can't happen again.
HELSINKI, FINLAND - Canada has officially finished the preliminary round of the world juniors with a 2-2 record and third place in its pool. The Canucks won just one game in regulation (against Denmark) and were practically blasted out of the Ice Hall by Sweden in their final medal round tune-up.
I say "practically," because there were flashes of excellence from the Red and White. But those flares need to transform into a firestorm if this team hopes to continue its tournament past the quarterfinal.
There were too many shifts against Sweden in which the Tre Kronor simply outsmarted or sped around the Canucks. Swedes were finding backdoor passes and open space all over the Canadian zone and netminder Mackenzie Blackwood certainly could not be blamed for the 5-2 result.
On the other hand, there were other shifts that lifted the many Canadian fans in attendance out of their seats. Led by smaller to mid-sized players such as Travis Konecny, Mitch Marner, Anthony Beauvillier and Mitchell Stephens, the Canadians looked fast, physical and exceedingly dangerous.
But there weren't enough of those shifts.
"We have to play with more urgency," Beauvillier said. "Especially in the next game. If we lose, we don't go through to the semifinal or the final. We need to have more consistency in our work ethic and make the simple plays with more consistency."
If Canada can do that, they will give the hosts from Finland all they can handle in the quarterfinal. After all, with Marner, Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse, Jake Virtanen and Haydn Fleury on the roster, this team should not be the underdog, even if they come into the match as the lower seed to Finland.
"Let's not short ourselves," said defenseman Roland McKeown. "On paper, we're really strong. But we have to put it together."
In a tournament normally dominated by Canadian artillery, only Strome is a top-10 scorer and he's in a big tie for ninth with five points in four games, far behind Finland's Jesse Puljujarvi (12 points) or top American Auston Matthews (eight). Only Strome and Marner have at least a point per game for the Canadians. Virtanen, who has spent the entire season in the NHL with Vancouver, has been held off the scoresheet entirely (unless you count penalties).
The team clearly has skill, but it has not been able to utilize it yet. The team also has a good dose of speed and jam, but only gets it on occasion. They haven't been strong defensively and the goaltending has been good, but not tourney-saving. So who is this team? Have the players found their identity yet?
"I don't think so," Beauvillier said. "I don't think we've given our best since the start of the tournament. We have to find our chemistry between our lines and simplify our games. We haven't shown our best yet."
The silver lining is that there is still time. As offensively potent as Finland is, the squad is still young and will no doubt feel some weight in front of an eager home crowd at Hartwall Arena. And this is Canada we're talking about. From Jordan Eberle to John Slaney, the world juniors has been a grand stage for the Canucks to perform on.
If this edition wants to avoid getting the hook, they better start singing together very soon.