Since opening the 2021 IIHF World Championship with back-to-back-to-back losses, Team Canada has undergone quite the revival in Riga. Later today, Gerard Gallant’s Canadians will go to war with Finland in the gold medal game, a finale few would have predicted at the close of the group stage on 1 June.
Why Canada started the tournament so poorly is still somewhat of a mystery. Remember, it was just 16 days ago that Latvia (the tenth seed) shutout the hockey-mad nation 2-0 in the opening game of the tournament.
In order to qualify for the quarter-finals, Team Canada needed a decisive group stage game between Germany and Latvia to end in regulation time. Had the contest been decided in overtime (or via a shootout), the Canadians would have been eliminated. (Germany won 2-1 in regulation.)
Since then, Canada’s fortunes have taken a turn for the better. Gallant’s side overcame the odds to defeat Russia 2-1 in the quarters, a result that set up a semi-final clash against noisy neighbours USA.
For the second time in as many games, Andrew Mangiapane was the hero for Canada, scoring twice (including the game-winner) to send the top seed to the final.
We know we are not done yet and we have one more game to take care of business
– Andrew Mangiapane
“It is crazy how we were able to battle back in this tournament,” said Mangiapane, who plays for Calgary in the NHL. “We have been the underdogs in most of our games, but we just keep proving people wrong.
“It is great to see, and great to see the character of our team and the level of competitiveness we have. We know we are not done yet and we have one more game to take care of business.”
Finland, on the other hand, has not had to stage a comeback at the Worlds. The reigning champions finished second in Group B, winning six of seven games in the opening phase of the tournament. Finland’s only blip came against Kazakhstan, who won out in overtime.
In fairness to the Finns, the defeat came less than 24 hours after they put the USA to the sword in their opening game of the tournament – match sharpness was a factor.
Nevertheless, having eliminated the Czech Republic and Germany en route to the final, Suomi’s early disappointment has long been forgotten.
However, Finland has not excelled in the goal-scoring department at the Worlds. Team Finland required two first period goals to overcome the Germans in the semi-final, a contest that Jukka Jalonen’s side entered as heavy favourites.
In fact Team Finland was somewhat fortunate to eliminate Germany. German goaltender Mathias Niederberger played a significant hand in the opening goal of Finland’s 2-1 win, with Hannes Björninen capitalising on lax passing to give Germany a mountain to climb after 19 minutes.
“The goals were completely unnecessary,” said German forward Dominik Kahun. He isn’t wrong.
Sunday, then, sees a team who looked down and out after three games take on a squad that is currently struggling to find twine.
It shows we have lots of great players in our country
– Andrew Mangiapane
Regardless, both sides enter the final with plenty on the line. A Finnish victory would make Jalonen the most successful coach in his nation’s history, while a Canadian win would exorcise the demons left by 2019’s defeat.
“For Finnish hockey, it’s great because we’re in the top two again,” Jalonen said of his side’s path to the final, “it shows we have lots of great players in our country.”
Whatever happens in the finale, Canada will walk away from the tournament having salvaged the unsalvageable. Finland, on the other hand, head into the gold medal game on the back foot, weighed down by expectation.
It isn’t the norm for Canada to enter a final with underdog status – but that is the reality today.
The 2021 IIHF World Championship is balanced on a knife-edge, if Mangiapane is on form, Team Canada will skate away with the gold medal. If the Canadians are unable to rely on Darcy Kuemper for solid goaltending, Finland’s tight-checking game will likely be the difference.
It probably won’t be a classic, but tonight’s final will be thrilling nonetheless.