Brayden Tracey scored the tying and winning goals in the third period as Canada came back from a three-goal deficit to stun defending champion Finland 5-3 on Friday night.
With 5:29 left, the Moose Jaw Warriors forward finished off a lovely pass from Connor Zary on a 2-on-1 rush to complete the red Maple Leaf comeback.
"He scored some big goals for us and that's what we need," said Jamieson Rees. "He put the puck in the net. He did his job tonight."
Rees, Alex Newhook, and Peyton Krebs also scored for Canada, which is vying to top the podium at this tournament for the first time since 2013. The Canadians haven't medalled since back-to-back bronzes in 2014 and 2015.
"I think early in the game, the nerves got to us a little bit," said Canadian assistant coach Serge Aubin. "First game of the tournament. Obviously give credit to Finland. They were playing extremely well. For us, our gap was too big. We were too spread apart. But I think starting in the second there, we got composed. We started playing the right way and we were very connected. Slowly but surely, we were able to get back on top."
This certainly wasn't the way Finland wanted to kick off its defence of its U18 Worlds title. Aku Raty, Antti Saarela and Anton Lundell were the goal-scorers.
The Finns have made four straight U18 finals, losing to the U.S. in 2015 and 2017 and defeating Sweden in 2017 and the U.S. last year. But they didn't set the right tone here, failing to play the proverbial full 60 minutes.
"We started really well," said Lundell. "We got a few goals. I think we weren't that good after that, and Canada got better with its goals. It's hard to say what happened. But it's a tournament, and we're moving forward. Tomorrow we have a new game. So let's focus on that now."In goal, it was Finland's Roope Taponen versus Canada's Taylor Gauthier for this roller-coaster ride. The Finns outshot Canada 42-40.
The two teams set a fabulous tempo out of the gate with few stoppages in play. Canada’s Keean Washkurak laid a solid hit on Finnish defenceman Santeri Hatakka on the forecheck. However, the Finns built control as the period went on, outshooting their opponents 20-12 and capitalizing on Canadian errors.
Aku Raty busted in over the blue line and handcuffed Gauthier with a quick glove-side wrister that tipped off defender Michael Vukocevic at 7:27.
At 11:59, Suomi cashed in with a 5-on-3 man advantage for a 2-0 edge. Kasper Simontaival controlled the puck behind the net and centered it to an unguarded Saarela, who scored from the doorstep.
Canada’s best chance of the first period came on a late power play. Jakob Pelletier found Zary down low and he pivoted neatly for a close-in attempt on Taponen, with Ryan Suzuki pitchforking away at the rebound. The Canadians celebrated briefly, but video review confirmed there was no goal.
Lundell was a force early in the second period. First, the 2019 World Junior gold medalist and highly touted 2020 NHL draft prospect made it 3-0 at 1:01, finishing off a rush with Tuukka Tiesola. Lundell was held pointless during his recent 12-game playoff run with HIFK Helsinki, but the 17-year-old Espoo native is serving notice it'll be different at this tournament.
"On my goal, we were moving straight forward," Lundell said. "I got the puck in the middle and shot with a quick release over the glove."
The Finns seemed to be in full control. Lundell bulled his way toward the net and forced Canadian defenceman Thomas Harley into a hooking penalty. Canada, however, capitalized shorthanded. Rees won a foot race and got a breakaway, sliding a backhand deke past Taponen at 4:55.
"We started off a little bit slow and we were a little bit nervous," Rees said. "But as soon as we started to play our game, you could tell that our speed was taking it to them."
The goal energized the Canadians. They narrowly missed some close-in chances, but Newhook made no mistake when, with his team applying pressure in the Finnish zone, the captain of the BCHL's Victoria Grizzlies got the puck in the right faceoff circle. Newhook zinged one past Taponen high to the stick side at 9:42 to cut the deficit to 3-2. The vibe had changed.
"We know we're a talented group," said Krebs. "There's a lot of skilled players in this locker room. We just said that if we won our 50-50 battles, we were going to outplay these guys."
Saarela was shaken up when he lost his footing on a rush and slammed into the Canadian end boards, but he was able to continue.
In the final stanza, the Canadian power play took just 21 seconds to connect for the 3-3 equalizer when Petman was sent off for a late hit. It was a veritable work of art. Tracey skimmed the puck to Krebs. The Canadian captain, from inside the Finnish blue line, returned the puck to Tracey with a clever backhanded feed, enabling him to get in and beat Taponen with a forehand deke.
With under a minute left, trailing by a goal, Finland killed its comeback hopes with a penalty for too many players on the ice. Finnish coach Mika Marttila pulled Taponen for the extra attacker regardless, but Krebs added an empty-netter to make it 5-3 with 31 seconds left.
Lundell learned from the adversity the Finnish U20 team faced en route to gold in January: "I think the most important thing was that we had tough times there, but we trusted each other and played together. We always thought that if we just keep going that we would get that one chance and could win the games. I think that's important here too. We need to get the team together with every guy trusting each other, and we can play our best game."
Canada tangles with Switzerland in Friday's early game, while Finland takes on Belarus in the late game.
Of aiming to break Canada's gold-medal drought, Krebs said: "It would be unbelievable. I think any time you come and play in these tournaments, you crave that gold medal. It creates that feeling in your stomach that you only get once in a while. So we've got to battle hard and take it game by game, and hopefully we can win tomorrow."