Looking for their first gold medal since 2015, and just second in nine tournaments, Canada kicks off the 2018 World Juniors today at 2 pm (mountain) against Finland.
This won’t exactly be a warmup game for Canada, even though they are playing a team that was nearly relegated last in last years tournament. Finland has some firepower up front and their mobile defence is up there with the Canadians in terms of pure skill. If you’re Canada, a win today over Finland would go a long way to making sure the outdoor match-up against the USA doesn’t mean a lot in terms of how the teams will rank in the medal round.
In 2017, everything that could have gone wrong for Finland did. They were upset by Denmark in the round-robin portion of the tournament and fired their coach before they even got to the relegation round. It was essentially a disaster from start to finish (no pun intended).
Last year’s colossal failure will be nothing but motivation for this years group, who come into the tournament boasting a rather skilled lineup.
Similar to Canada, lots of Finland’s offence will come from the back-end. Olli Juolevi will be partaking in his third World Junior Championship. Taken fifth overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2016, Juolevi returned to SM-Liiga this year, rather than going back to London for another year in the OHL. I think the time spent back home could actually benefit Juolevi coming into this tournament, he should be one of the better players for Finland.
There’s also Dallas Stars third overall pick Miro Heiskanen who has produced 14 points in 20 games with HIFK (Liiga). Heiskanen will likely run Finland’s top powerplay unit. As much as I’ve raved about Canada’s very strong and skilled defence, Finland’s group has the potential to be even better.
Up front, keep an eye out for Eeli Tolvanen. The 18-year-old Predators prospect has taken the KHL by storm, posting 32 points in 39 games with Jokerit. That type of production by an 18-year-old is almost unheard in the KHL, and there’s no doubt he’ll play a huge role in any success Finland has offensively.
They also have Flames first rounder Juuso Valimaki who’s been producing at just over a point per game clip with Tri-City (WHL). At 6’2 and over 200 pounds, Valimaki could use his combination of size and puck handling to dominate the younger opposition.
This will also give Oilers fans a chance to watch 2016 sixth round pick Aapeli Rasanen, who was centering Finlands fourth line at practice.
CANADIAN TO WATCH
My player to watch for the opening match-up is Taylor Raddysh. The 19-year-old is having a great year offensively with Erie and is one of the few forwards on Canada who’s returning from the 2017 tournament where he scored five goals in seven games.
He knows about the pressure that comes with wearing the maple leaf at the biggest tournament of the year, so I expect him to come out and be one of Canada’s best players right from the opening shift.
His combination of size, experience and skill should really make him stand out.
KEYS TO A CANADIAN VICTORY
- Having a hot powerplay can almost single-handedly propel you to a medal in this tournament. It will be important for Canada to get their man-advantage firing right from the first game.
- Like a good power play, you need goaltending to win at the World Juniors. As a team, allowing Carter Hart to get comfortable between the pipes and not allowing many Grade “A” chances against will be important to get off on the right foot this year.
- Canada can’t allow Finland’s failure last year to impact their mindset. This is going to be a very even matchup and Canada can’t afford to come out slow and give up an early goal.
GAME DAY PREDICTION
This one should be a tight game in my opinion, but I think Canada’s goaltending carries them. I don’t believe in jinxes either, so I’ll just say it: 3-0 Canada with a 24 save shutout for Carter Hart is my game day prediction tonight. I also think we’ll see Canada flex their skill from the back-end and they’ll get a goal from one of their skilled defenders.
Team Canada’s lines from yesterday’s practice are via TSN’s Mark Masters (who you can follow on Twitter HERE) UPDATE: Canada has released Josh Mahura for a second time, meaning Dante Fabbro is healthy.
Team Finland’s lines from yesterday’s practice are via @FINjrhockey & http://Jatkoaika.com