Mikey DiPietro looked shellshocked at the end of Canada’s quarterfinal game against Finland. He had just done everything he possibly could to give Canada the win to move on in the World Junior Championships. It wasn’t enough.
That’s when he was named the Best Player for Canada in the game, and one of the top-three players for Canada in the tournament, forcing him to pose for photographs for his individual awards while he was devastated about the loss for his team.
Those awards are selected by the team and coaches, but they weren’t the only ones who recognized how brilliant DiPietro had been. The fans in Rogers Arena were raucous, chanting DiPietro’s name in spite of the loss. It wasn’t the first time that chant rocked Rogers Arena and Canucks fans are hoping it won’t be the last.
In a bittersweet turn, it was another Canucks prospect that ended DiPIetro and Team Canada’s tournament: Toni Utunen scored the game-winner in overtime. But we’ll come back to that.
In the preliminary round, Finland had somewhat disappointed, falling 2-1 in their toughest tests against Sweden and Team USA. They had leaned towards defence more than offence on their blue line and it showed in their approach, limiting chances but not always generating much themselves.
Against Canada, however, they poured on the pressure, out-shooting Canada 34 to 25. Even with the offensive pressure, they still stymied Canada’s offence, limiting them to just one goal.
That one goal came 1:30 into the second period, when a broken play saw the puck land on Ian Mitchell’s stick inside the right faceoff circle and he ripped it top corner past Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
After that, it was all DiPietro. He held the one-goal lead right up until the final minute, making stunning save after stunning save. It wasn’t just that he held the lead; he kept Canada in the game. Given the quality of Finland’s chances, Canada might have lost in a rout if it wasn’t for DiPietro.
It started right from the first period, when he robbed Rasmus Kupari as he got in alone. Then he threw out his blocker to turn aside an Eeli Tolvanen one-time blast on the power play. Late in the period, he made a point blank stop on Teemu Engberg from the slot, then flashed out his right pad to rob Samuli Vainionpaa on the rebound.
He continued making amazing saves in the second and third as the shot count grew more and more heavily in Finland’s favour. He seemed to steal a goal away from Tolvanen every other shift, particularly on one second period chance. Tolvanen walked in off the boards and, as DiPietro started to go down into his butterfly, sent the puck high on the short side.
DiPietro seemed to stop short his drop into his butterfly and launched his left shoulder upward, getting just enough of the puck to turn it aside.
What’s been most impressive about DiPietro is how he’s adjusted his game over the last year. One of the few criticisms of DiPietro when he was drafted was that he depended too much on his athleticism at times, getting caught out of position and scrambling back to make impressive-looking saves that likely didn’t need to look that impressive.
DiPietro’s game looks a lot more controlled now, and he made some difficult saves look easy with solid technique and positioning. Look at this save on Tolvanen, where he challenged, but didn’t over-commit, and kept his stick in perfect position as he quickly closed his five-hole and controlled the rebound.
Then, in the final minute of play, Finland got lucky.
It seemed like the only way that Finland was going to score was by some fluke. Sure enough, Finland fluked into a goal with 46 seconds left in the game.
Tolvanen took a shot from behind the goal line, hoping to bank the puck in from the terrible angle, but it hit the back of the net instead. While pucks that hit the back of the net sometimes sit on the net and get frozen for a whistle, this one bounced right back to Tolvanen, who again threw it out front hoping for a miracle.
The puck hit Aleksi Heponiemi’s skate and bounced just under DiPietro’s blocker.
From behind the net - Tolvanen banks it off Heponiemi and in— Ryan Biech (@ryanbiech) January 3, 2019
Game tied at 1 pic.twitter.com/VGmrnqGMp9
DiPietro could only sit there with a stunned expression on his face. A perfect performance tarnished by a bad bounce.
Canada had two great chances to win the game in overtime. Evan Bouchard, whose skating has been much-maligned, managed to create a breakaway. He was slashed from behind, drawing a penalty shot that, under international rules, could be taken by any Canadian skater. Maxime Comtois, the captain, stepped up, but was stopped when he tried to sneak a low shot under Luukkonen’s pad.
Then Canada created a fantastic chance for Noah Dobson. Cody Glass sent the puck across to Dobson at the back door. He had the entire net open as Luukkonen had committed to Glass. That was it. Game over.
His stick snapped in half.
Finland took the puck the other way and Toni Utunen took the drop pass from Aarne Talvitie on the right wing and whipped a wrist shot on net that ramped up Glass’s stick and beat DiPietro top corner on the short side.
It was the unlikeliest of heroes for Finland. Utunen was brought along more for his defensive prowess than his offensive upside. In some ways, he was emblematic of Finland’s seeming preference for defence over offence on the blue line.
Utunen doesn’t even have a single goal in the Finnish Liiga this season and has just one assist. While he can effectively move the puck from the defensive zone, he’s not known for doing much at the other end of the ice.
Yet there he was, on the ice for 4-on-4 overtime, jumping up in the rush to get the crucial scoring chance.
For most of the game, Utunen played his steady, defensive game. He had two big shot blocks on the penalty kill in the first period and played a solid 16:39 on the third pairing, keeping plays to the outside and calmly moving the puck up to his forwards. It was a quiet game for Utunen until overtime, when he had his only two shots on goal and scored the biggest goal of his life.
One Canucks prospect was in ecstasy; the other, in agony.
Luukkonen, in spite of his desire to celebrate with the rest of his team, had enough empathy to take a moment with DiPietro before he joined the throng.
Class act from Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen giving Mikey DiPietro a tap before celebrating with his team. Tendy love stays strong. pic.twitter.com/z0M9G8pXWj— Shayne Pasquino (@shaynepasquino) January 3, 2019
Utunen’s goal sends Finland to the semifinals to face Switzerland, who stunned Sweden 2-0 in their quarterfinal. That’s an easier path to the gold medal game for Finland, but Switzerland proved that they won’t be an easy out.
Meanwhile, Canada fails to medal in a World Juniors hosted on home ice for the first time ever. Significant ink will be spilled in the coming days breaking down this team and questioning Canada’s development system, but no one will be able to question DiPietro and his performance.
DiPietro has a good head on his shoulders and will be able to use this experience to fuel him for the future. On his new OHL team, the Ottawa 67’s, DiPietro has an excellent opportunity to win his second Memorial Cup championship. You can bet he’ll have his eyes locked on that prize in short order.