Canada’s world junior returnees looking for redemption vs. Finland in semis

OSTRAVA, Czech Republic — It’s a loss Joe Veleno knows he’ll never truly get over. The same goes for Barrett Hayton.

Canada was leading Finland 1-0 with under a minute to go in the quarterfinals of last year’s world junior hockey championship in Vancouver before a crowd ready to explode.

Moments later, disaster struck.

The Finns tied it late on a crazy carom from behind the net. The Canadians, however, steadied themselves and had a golden opportunity to move on in overtime, only to see captain Max Comtois stopped on a penalty shot.

Noah Dobson got another chance to win it and send the national team to the semifinals on home soil, but the defenceman’s stick broke at the crucial moment as he stared down what basically amounted to an open net.

Finland immediately broke the other way, and blue-liner Toni Utunen — known more for his play without the puck than offensive prowess — took a drop pass and wired a shot upstairs on Michael DiPietro to break Canadian hearts.

“Rewatching that video kind of triggers me a little bit,” Veleno said. “If we would have won that game, we maybe could have won the tournament.”

Instead, the Finns thumped Switzerland in the semis and beat the United States for gold.

“We all remember all of it,” said Hayton, this year’s captain. “Forever that’ll be a bitter taste.”

The recollections on the other side are, of course, decidedly different.

“It was a huge goal. I hope to see something similar on Saturday,” Utunen said, adding he’s only viewed the replay on social media a handful of times. “It’s hard to explain the feeling.”

An opportunity at redemption doesn’t always come along in life, but Canada’s five returning players at the 2020 event get one Saturday when the countries meet one round later in the semifinals. Russia and Sweden will tangle in the other matchup, with the gold- and bronze-medal games set for Sunday.

“We’ve got a really good group to do this,” said Veleno, a first-round pick by Detroit. “We believe in ourselves.”

Veleno, Hayton, Jared McIsaac, Ty Smith and Alexis Lafreniere — Dobson was also eligible to return, but wasn’t released to Canada for the tournament by the New York Islanders — stayed in touch in the wake of that crushing defeat, knowing they’d likely get another crack at gold.

“We’re all friends,” said Hayton, who was loaned out by the Arizona Coyotes. “We’re always in constant communication. That’s just how we are. We’re a tight group.”

And things seem to be coming together at the right time.

Following an embarrassing 6-0 loss to Russia in its second game where Lafreniere injured his knee, Hayton accidentally disrespected the opponent by failing to remove his helmet during the anthem ceremony, and Veleno got suspended, Canada has ripped off three straight wins with increasing efficiency.

A mostly-tidy 7-2 dismantling of hosts Czech Republic to close out the preliminary round clinched first in Group B. Lafreniere, the projected No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL draft, then made an unexpected return to the lineup — at least to those on the outside — in the quarters against Slovakia, setting the tone with a big hit and finishing with a goal and an assist in a 6-1 victory.

The Finns, however, are also ascending.

After losing 5-2 to Switzerland to complete round-robin play on a sour note, they stunned the favoured U.S. 1-0 in the quarters to book the rematch with Canada.

“They have good players everywhere,” said Finland captain Lassi Thomson, an Ottawa first-rounder. “It’s going to be a tough game.”

Finland, which has won world junior gold three of the last six years following just two victories in the previous 37 tournaments, is in the semis despite missing its No. 1 and No. 2 centres.

And yet, as they have in years past, the Finns have found a way when it matters most.

“After the second period it was easy to see they were frustrated,” Utunen, one of three returning players from 2019, said of Thursday’s victory over the U.S. “They started to play a little bit by themselves.”

Finnish goalie Justus Annunen, a Colorado prospect, has the second-best save percentage at .936 after that 30-shot performance against the Americans.

“He’s been amazing,” said Utunen, who has scored four goals in the last two years, with three coming against Canada. “We need to thank him a lot.”

The Canadians, who beat Finland in a pre-tournament game in December, know their opponent will look to once again stifle creativity at 5 on 5, but unlike last year, Canada’s power play has been lights out at 44 per cent compared to a mark of just over 16.5 per cent in 2019.

Hayton, meanwhile, has rebounded from the Russia controversy to register five goals and nine points in five games, Lafreniere has two goals and six points in his seven periods of action, Veleno is a key piece down the middle, and Smith and McIsaac have been steady on the blue line.

And while the stinging memories of last year will always be present, the returnees are hoping to dull that pain and take another step towards finishing the job with Canada two wins from its 18th gold medal.

“You don’t get too many opportunities,” Veleno said. “You want to take advantage.”

They get another shot Saturday.

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