Defending champs start with win
by Andrew Podnieks|26 DEC 2023
Owen Alard scores Canada's second goal midway through the game.
photo: Matt Zambonin/IIHF
Team Canada, winners of the gold medal in 2022 and 2023, started defence of their IIHF World Junior Championship title with a solid Boxing Day matinee win over a big and physical Team Finland, 5-2. It was the fifth win in a row for Canada over Suomi going back to 2020.

"We stuck to our game, and when we do that, there are not a lot of teams that can play with us," said Nate Danielson, who had a goal and an assist for the winners. "We get pucks to the net, use our cycle game really well. We expected them to be a little physical, but we did a good job of giving it back."

"It was a pretty fast game," offered Finnish defender Kalle Kangas. "But we can't focus on this any more. We have to get ready for tomorrow. We have to play simple, get shots to the net, and score. We play one game at a time, even though we are thinking about the end of the tournament. One game at a time for now."

This marked the first time a Team Canada had ever played at the Scandinavium, an arena that opened in 1971 and previously co-hosted two Men’s World Championships, in 1981 and 2002. In both instances, though, Canada played elsewhere. (A WHA/Team Canada did play here in 1974 on its way to Moscow, but that wasn’t a true national team or an IIHF event.)

Both teams are back at it tomorrow. Canada plays Latvia in the evening, while the Finns take on Germany earlier in the day.

Both goalies were excellent in the opening period, although the only goal came off a shot Niklas Kokko would have liked to have back. He stopped the original shot from Denton Mateychuk, but Danielson got the rebound, and his quick shot in front snuck under the arm of the Finnish goalie at 16:24 to give Canada the 1-0 lead.

Prior to the goal, Kokko was rock solid, flashing his glove to spoil Matthew Poitras’ sure goal. But the save of the game, and an early but clear candidate for save of the tournament, came courtesy of Mathis Rousseau at the other end. His falling-splits-and-glove-lunge save off a sure goal from Lenni Hameenaho was something to behold.

Teams exchanged goals in the second after an early post by Canada’s Jordan Dumais. Canada made it 2-0 at 13:41 on a bang-bang play in front. Danielson made the pass, and Owen Allard snapped it home off the post and back of Kokko’s leg. 

"We had some sustained pressure, and the puck kind of bounced to their defender and I poked it between his legs. Allard was sitting back door and I found him," Danielson described.
Finland vs Canada - 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship
Two minutes later the Finns finally got on the board courtesy of a power play. Arttu Karki’s point shot was tipped over the glove of Rousseau by Aleksanteri Kaskimaki, one of five returning players from last year’s 5th-place squad and one of 16 players to have been on the team’s U18 roster in 2022 or 2023. 

Canada doubled its lead at 6:38 of the third after a video review. Canada's Macklin Celebrini, the early favourite to be drafted first overall next year, knocked in a puck from in close, but it landed under Kokko's pads and wasn't clearly in until reviewed. The Canadians controlled the rest of the game, the threat of the first period now quelled and under control.

Poitras added an empty netter to seal the victory, but Finnish captain Jere Lassila made it a little closer, poking in a loose puck with 64 seconds left on the clock. Lamoureux then added a second freebie into the empty cage with 6.2 seconds left.

NOTES: The referees for the game represented experience and youth. At the one end was Tobias Bjork, a veteran Swede who had the whistle for the gold-medal game at the 2022 Olympics among his many achievements. He was accompanied by compatriot Daniel Eriksson, whose only other top-level experience came at the 2023 WW18, where he worked the bronze-medal game.