A broken stick leads to broken hearts for Canada's world juniors
It was an unfortunate series of events for a team that never found its groove
When a Canadian is on the losing end of a hockey game at any level it's never easy.
It doesn't matter if it's a peewee house-league final in Cole Harbour, N.S., or on the bigger stages like the world junior tournament, the world championship or an Olympic gold-medal final.
So imagine how the 2019 Canadian world junior team feels after its heartbreaking 2-1 loss in overtime in Vancouver on Wednesday. The team had this one in the bag.
There were only 46.4 ticks left on the clock in the third period when, with Canada up 1-0, a puck deflected off the left shin pad of Finland's Aleksi Heponiemi and past Canadian goaltender Michael DiPietro for the tying goal.
But Canada still had a couple of glorious chances to take the game in overtime.
WATCH | Finland defeats Canada in overtime:
Captain Maxime Comtois was awarded a penalty shot early in the extra period after Canadian defenceman Evan Bouchard was hooked on a breakaway. But Comtois, chosen to take the shot by Canada coach Tim Hunter under new rules this year, was turned aside on his low blocker attempt.
A few shifts later Canadian first-line centre Cody Glass feathered a cross-ice pass to defencemen Noah Dobson. The native of Summerside, P.E.I., had an open net staring at him, but his stick broke on his one-touch attempt.
The unexpected turn of events gave Finland an odd-man rush the other way. Unlike Canada's missed opportunities to close the deal, Finnish defenceman Toni Utunen, who just happens to be a Vancouver Canucks prospect, finished off Canada at his future home with a blast that deflected off the stick of Glass and over the left shoulder of goalie Michael DiPietro.
The Finns, all of a sudden, were off to the semifinals. They have a date on Friday with Switzerland, who pulled off a shocker earlier in the day with a 2-0 quarter-final win against Sweden in Victoria.
"We gave it our best," said Comtois, who played through a painful shoulder injury. "Sometimes you don't get the bounces in your favour."
Hunter selected Comtois to take the critical penalty shot because he was the team's best shootout guy in practice. But it didn't work out, which it usually does when Canada hosts this holiday event. In the previous 12 times Canada has played host to this tournament, Canada has won five gold medals, five silvers and two bronzes.
But Canada never found its groove in this tournament. It was especially poor on the power play, going 0-for-3 in this game and scoring only three times in 18 man-advantage situations in its five games.
Finland might have enjoyed a slight edge in play in this game, but both teams had opportunities to salt this one away. Finland was foiled by DiPietro — often.
The Canadian goalie, also a Canucks prospect, won plenty of fans in his future home. The Canucks selected DiPietro in the third round a few weeks after he helped the Windsor Spitfires win the 2016-17 Memorial Cup.
Late in the second period, after a series of stellar stops, the crowd gave the Canadian goalie a standing ovation and chanted his name. This brought DiPietro's mom to tears.
"It was game that was played well on both sides," DiPietro said. "I'm at a loss for words. You feel you've let your country down, but you also feel you've let your teammates down.
"It just didn't work out."
The second-guessing started immediately after Utunen deposited the winner. Did Hunter choose the right guy to take the penalty shot? Why couldn't the power play get on track? Why was this team so inconsistent?
The bottom line is that it is not the 1990s or the early 2000s anymore, a time when Canada won five gold medals in a row on two different occasions.
Since 2009, when Canada, with the late Pat Quinn as coach, won its fifth in a row for a second time, five different countries have struck world junior gold. The United States have won three times, followed by two apiece from Canada and Finland and one each to Russia and Sweden. There's parity in them there hills now.
Who knows? Maybe in a few days it will be Switzerland's turn.