Beware of the sleeping giant.
Canada's collection of NHL stars might never have been treated to more indifference at the IIHF World Hockey Championship than in the last week at Hartwall Arena, where locals have packed the building for games involving Finland and virtually ignored everything else.
The team hasn't even enjoyed its normal role as the anointed favourite of foreign reporters. That group seems far less interested in tracking Canadian players than normal, making for an unusually quiet start to a tournament that should have the volume turned up on it Friday night with a game against the host country.
“Maybe it's a good thing we're playing Finland,” said Canadian coach Brent Sutter. “Obviously, it's a huge game. You're playing the team that's hosting the tournament and you know it's going to be a full house in here. We have to rise to the occasion and step up.”
Canada is partly responsible for its current underdog label. After making quarter-final exits at the last two tournaments and falling to fifth in the world rankings, the team has yet to turn in a statement performance in Helsinki.
So far, it beat France handily, did enough to edge Slovakia and Switzerland by one goal and lost an entertaining back-and-forth overtime game to the United States. It's been a solid start but not one that really grabbed anyone's attention.
As Canadian players continue to repeat the mantra that guides them through every international hockey tournament — the need to get a little better every day — a game against Finland at this stage of the world championship offers the chance to prove that everything is heading in the right direction.
“It's going to be a big test for us,” said captain Ryan Getzlaf.
One new element to deal with will be the presence of atmosphere around the game, something the Canadian team hasn't seen since a pair of exhibitions in Switzerland more than a week ago. The biggest crowd Canada has played before in the 13,000-plus seat Hartwell Arena was the 6,842 who turned up to watch it face the Americans.
High ticket prices have kept fans from filling the building — the starting price was 150 euros (C$195) to watch games involving the host country — but it didn't deter them from scooping up every seat available well in advance of the Canada-Finland matchup.
A few trips out in the city centre have offered the visitors a good idea what to expect.
“Everyone's walking around with Finnish stuff,” said Sutter. “It's a big deal. World championships, it's their Stanley Cup final over here, it's their playoffs.”
Finland enters on quite a roll, having won 12 consecutive games — eight exhibitions before the tournament followed by the first four that counted here. As the defending champion, it is playing with a swagger seldom seen from a country that built its hockey reputation on being a plucky underdog.
Store fronts throughout Helsinki are adorned with the phrase “Break The Spell,” which is a reference to Finland's bid to become the first host since the Soviet Union in 1986 to win gold on home ice.
The Finnish players are trying to face that challenge head on.
“It means a lot,” said captain Miko Koivu. “Every time you put the jersey on, it's an honour. People in Finland, they all care about their game, their hockey. It's the biggest sport and everybody follows it.
“There's always lots of pressure.”
The internal pressure on the Canadian team remains unchanged from the past, but they've clearly not generated much hype with their performance just yet.
There are always some growing pains when a collection of individuals are brought together quickly at this event, although Sutter has called on some built-in familiarity by reuniting the line of John Tavares, Jordan Eberle and Jeff Skinner from last year's world championship. They've been the most dangerous for Canada.
In terms of style, the Finns couldn't be much more different tactically. They ice four five-man units — carrying 12 forwards and eight defencemen — and rely on an extremely disciplined, team-oriented approached. They've even alternated starts for their goaltenders and are expected to call on Kari Lehtonen against Canada.
He's one of just four NHL players who was selected for the tournament.
“It doesn't matter where the players are coming from,” said Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen. “We work as a team, we act as a team. Now we have four guys and somebody else has more — it's about the same number of NHL players who played last season for us and we won the gold.”
In many ways, the Canadians are yearning to become a little more like the Finns.
Sutter has remained even keel after each performance, but clearly believes the team has more to give. Canada might have flown beneath the radar to this point of the tournament, but that would likely change in a hurry if it could find a way to win on Friday night.
“They're the host team and they're the defending champions,” said Sutter. “You've got to expect that they'll have their best game. And we've got to be at our level too.”Report Typo/Error
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