Wednesday January 2nd, 2008

In a game in which it looked as though all the bounces were fated to go against Canada, it was a late deflection off a Finnish stick that made the difference in the Canadians' 4-2 victory Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the World Junior Championship.

Brad Marchand's redirected wrister sealed a good result for the defending gold medalists, but the Canadians shouldn't take too much pride in the victory. Despite putting together their best 60-minute effort of the tournament, they barely advanced past a hard-working but defensively porous Finnish squad. Now, facing a rematch of last year's classic semifinal against a justifiably confident American squad on Friday, the Canadians have a lot of questions to address if they hope to keep their quest for a fourth consecutive gold medal alive.

Not the least of these is who to start in net. It was just two days ago that Canadian coach Craig Hartsburg announced that Steve Mason (Columbus Blue Jackets) was his go-to guy for the rest of the tournament. But after allowing a pair of spirit-sapping goals Wednesday, Mason's status as the starter may be open for reconsideration.

He wasn't brutal by any means. In fact, Mason was good enough for the win, moving his tournament record to 3-0, with a 1.00 GAA and .951 save percentage. Impressive numbers to be sure, but he opened the debate after an early first-period slapper from outside the blue line by Juuso Puustinen (Calgary Flames) sailed over his glove hand to give the Finns a 1-0 lead. He compounded his woes late in the second when a Jan-Mikael Juutilainen wrister from behind the net bounced off his right pad and into the goal, allowing the Finns to tie the game at 2-2.

That one might be written off as an unlucky bounce, but neither goal inspires the confidence Canada has had in previous big-game goalies like Carey Price, Jeff Glass or Manny Legace. And confidence is crucial to the Canadian game. That's why Jonathan Bernier (Los Angeles Kings) should get the call on Friday. Although he was victimized by three goals late in the loss to Sweden, only one of them was soft. And as solid as Mason is, he doesn't carry the same aura about him as Bernier does. That presence may be the key advantage the Canadians take into the match against the Americans.

It certainly won't be their physical play. Previous Canadian entries hammered the will to compete out of opponents with an early barrage of hits, softening them up before allowing their skill to take over. Despite the presence of several purported bangers -- Marchand (Boston Bruins), Colton Gillies (Minnesota Wild), Stefan Legein (Columbus) and Brandon Sutter (Carolina Hurricanes), in particular -- these Canucks have yet to exhibit the drive to punish their opponent right out of the gate. They've answered the coaching staff's call for discipline -- Canada took just two minors against Finland -- but their inability to exact a physical toll plays right into the hands of the bigger, more experienced Americans. With front liners like James VanRiemsdyk, Kyle Okposo and Colin Wilson thriving along the boards and in the trenches, Team USA looks to have a big edge in that department.

And while Canada outchanced the Finns by a wide margin -- 28-9 by Hartsburg's postgame reckoning -- its pop-gun offense managed to put just three past surprise starter Harri Sateri, the backup who had been blasted in two previous WJC starts. It's hard to imagine this group struggling to finish if tournament-eligibles like Jonathan Toews, Sam Gagner and Jordan Staal were in the lineup. But they're gainfully employed in the NHL, and that leaves the heavy lifting to an inexperienced group of 17- and 18-year-olds, most of whose hands have turned to stone under the pressure, leading to too many missed opportunities. Against a high-end opponent like the United States, one missed chance may be too many.

All that said, there are some positive marks on the ledger after this win. The Canadians dominated the flow against the Finns, and earned that edge by consistently going hard to the net, something they'd failed to do through much of the round robin. The defense is making fewer mistakes, and while the defensemen are still hard-pressed to hit the net from the point, they're making smarter decisions with the puck.

Most important, the team may finally have found its offensive catalysts in a trio of 17-year-olds. After wasting him as a power play specialist for the prelims, Hartsburg finally caved and gave John Tavares a regular shift on the second line. He responded with a nasty wrist shot to tie the game at 1-1 early in the second, and gave the Finns fits with several other creative plays. Steven Stamkos, the top-rated prospect for this June's draft, chipped in with a goal and an assist, despite spending much of the match on the fourth line. And defenseman Drew Doughty was at his freewheeling best, going coast-to-coast to set up Stamkos' goal and drawing the secondary assist on Marchand's winner.

Their success -- and Mason's stumbles -- puts the onus for Friday's game directly on Hartsburg. If he plays it safe, the Americans should advance to face the winner of Sweden/Russia for the gold medal. But if he gives the ice to the players who've truly earned it -- and if he taps Bernier for the start -- this one could live up to the rematch hype.

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