Jake Virtanen and veterans struggle as Canada bows out in quarterfinals

Daniel Nugent-Bowman

For all the talk about the Canadians being too young up front, that wound up being the least of their concerns at the World Junior Hockey Championship.

Dylan Strome was their top forward in the tournament, Mathew Barzal showed flashes of offensive flair and Mitch Marner, the highly skilled Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, was electric against Finland.

It wasn’t enough. Despite Marner’s two goals and tremendous creativity, the Canadians fell to the host Finns 6-5 in Saturday’s quarterfinal. They could not contain Finland’s top line of Jesse Puljujarvi, Sebastian Aho and Patrik Laine, a trio that combined for three goals and nine points.

Puljujarvi and Laine, in particular, continue to dominate the tournament at historic levels as 17-year-old, NHL draft-eligible players. Puljujarvi has 15 points, three off of Jaromir Jagr’s record by a 17-year-old and he can still appear in two more games. They wanted to play Canada, and they showed why.

But while the Canadians’ younger stars were trying to keep up with Finland’s youngsters, their older players were slowing them down. The primary example was Jake Virtanen, who likely capped off a miserable tournament with his worst game. Virtanen, a returnee from last year’s gold medal-winning team, was jettisoned in from the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks on the final day of the December selection camp in Toronto.

After posting four points in Montreal and Toronto last year, Virtanen expected to more of an impact player in Finland, the country from which his father emigratedInstead, it took the Vancouver Canucks forward until Saturday’s quarterfinal to record his first and only point of the tournament – a second-period assist on a Lawson Crouse goal.

But it was his undisciplined play away from the puck against the Finns – which continued from the final group-play game against Sweden – that hurt his team’s chances the most. Virtanen was assessed three minor penalties, each either senseless or ill-timed.

The first was for holding the stick, an infraction called while Canada was on the power play and with a delayed penalty to Finland’s Miro Keskitalo upcoming. Not only did Virtanen’s call negate a potential two-man advantage for Canada, but a slashing penalty to Brendan Perlini 26 seconds later led to a Finnish power-play goal.

Then, with the score tied 5-5 and Canada on the power play, Virtanen was called for two penalties on the same shift when he tripped Kasper Bjorkqvist and slashed the stick out of Miska Siikonen’s hands.

With Canada killing off the second half of his double minor, defenceman Joe Hicketts shot the puck over the glass at the far end of the ice. Laine, who easily could have been tossed for boarding Strome earlier in the period, scored the winning goal on the 5-on-3.

Virtanen sat on the bench as his teammates searched for the tying goal in the final minute. He was arguably the worst of the 19-year-old players in the loss, but he wasn’t the only one whose performance was lacking.

Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood also struggled. He couldn’t squeeze shot from Laine in the dying seconds of the first period, which allowed Finland to cut Canada’s 2-0 lead in half heading into the intermission. The third Finnish goal, by Aleksi Saarela, was scored from a terrible angle. Laine’s winner, although netted with Canada skating two players down, went through his legs.

Unlike Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen, who pulled Veini Vehvilainen for Kaapo Kahkonen midway through the game, Canadian bench boss Dave Lowry didn’t remove Blackwood for fellow 19-year-old Mason McDonald.

Canada hasn’t had the top goaltender at the world juniors since 2008 when Steve Mason took home the honours in a gold medal performance. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Canada has two championship titles since then – in 2009 and last year.

In addition to Virtanen and the goaltenders, Perlini was non-existent. Haydn Fleury and Travis Sanheim didn’t produce offence from the back end. There’s plenty of blame to go around as Canada finished sixth, its worst showing since that 1998 debacle, also in Helsinki. And most of it should be directed towards the vets. 

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