The World Junior Hockey Championship has come to a close as the event hosted by Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia played its final game Saturday night, signifying the unofficial end to the holiday season for the average Canadian sports fan. This year’s edition of the annual tournament played out much differently than the Under-20 Canadian team would have hoped, as they followed up a 3-1 record in the preliminary round with a heartbreaking exit to Finland in the quarterfinals. Canada was dealt a tough hand as they held a 1-0 lead in the quarterfinal match up until less than a minute to play in regulation time when the Finns eventually tied up the game on a deflection. Canada had their chances in overtime, but a missed penalty shot by captain Maxime Comtois and a broken stick on a glorious chance for Noah Dobson eventually led to the game winning goal by Finland’s Toni Utunen – ironically, Utunen is a Vancouver Canucks prospect. Canada was left with sixth place in the tournament and it represents the first time they have been left without a medal as tournament hosts. This result is also tied for the third worst finish in Canadian program history as they had also finished sixth on two other occasions in 1992 and in 2016 while finishing seventh in 1981 and eighth in 1998.
Ultimately, the Finnish team proved to be quite deserving victors over the Canadians, as the Finns rallied to defeat the Russians 2-1 in the semi-finals and overcame a late push by the Americans to claim the gold medal with a 3-2 win in the final. One of the top prospects for the upcoming NHL draft, Kaapo Kakko, scored the game winning goal with just 1:26 left in the third period. This was Finland’s fifth World Junior Championship in their nation’s history, with this 2019 gold medal marking an impressive third gold in the past six years. Those other three years in that time include placings of 7th (2015), 9th (2017) and 6th (2018) for the country of just over 5.5 million people, so it appears as though the Finns are pretty all or nothing in their recent performances. Either way, there’s certainly no reason to question Finland’s place as a world hockey power.
As mentioned, the United States lost to Finland in the finals and received the silver medal. A major reason behind their strong performance can be attributed to the play of Niagara IceDogs forward Jason Robertson. Robertson had 22 points in just eight games with the IceDogs after being acquired in a major trade with the Kingston Frontenacs before the tournament and carried forward that momentum by recording seven points for team USA en route to being named one of the top three players on the team. Robertson wasn’t the only IceDog representative in the tournament, as defenseman Daniel Bukac was in British Columbia representing the Czech Republic. Bukac recorded an assist in five games played and his team fell to Robertson’s American side in the quarterfinals.
To round out the rest of the medal placing, the Russians overcame the Cinderella story team Switzerland in the bronze medal game to take third leaving the Swiss in fourth. The Swiss only have one bronze medal in their history in this tournament, so this is an excellent result for them. The Swiss’ run included a massive upset of Sweden in the quarterfinals, further adding to the narrative that Sweden can’t get the job done in elimination games. Sweden is now undefeated in preliminary play (47-0) dating back to 2006 but have won just a single gold medal in that time and two gold medals in the tournament’s 43 year history.
The tournament All-Star team for 2019 was voted upon by the media at the conclusion of the tournament and was chosen as follows: Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Goaltender, Finland, Buffalo Sabres; Alexander Romanov, Defenceman, Russia, Montreal Canadiens; Erik Brannstrom, Defenceman, Sweden, Vegas Golden Knights; Grigori Denisenko, Forward, Russia, Florida Panthers; Philipp Kurashev, Switzerland, Chicago Blackhawks; Ryan Poehling, USA, Montreal Canadiens.
Hockey fans now must wait until Boxing Day 2019 for their fix of the World Junior Hockey Championship. Next year’s tournament will be hosted by Ostrava and Trinec, Czech Republic.