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Canucks prospect Lekkerimäki scores twice in Sweden’s World Junior opener

Jonathan Lekkerimäki had two goals, while Elias Pettersson and Tom Willander played mobile, physical defence.
Jonathan Lekkerimäki celebrates a goal with his Sweden teammates at the 2024 World Junior Championship.

The hosts of the 2024 World Junior Championship kicked their tournament off with a win with three Vancouver Canucks prospects playing a significant role, particularly Jonathan Lekkerimäki, who started things off with a two-goal game.

Sweden cruised to a 6-0 win against the normally defensively stout Latvia, though it took a lot of work on special teams to get there. The Canucks’ three prospects on Sweden — Lekkerimäki, Tom Willander, and Elias Pettersson — all played a role on special teams.

Lekkerimäki skated on the top line with Noah Ostlund and Anton Wahlberg and was also a key fixture on the first power play unit. Pettersson started the game on the top defence pairing with Elias Salomonsson and was on the first penalty kill unit. Willander skated on the second pairing, at first with Mattias Havelid, and was also on the second penalty kill unit.

Those defence pairings didn’t last past the first shift, however, as Salomonsson got kicked out of the game 25 seconds into the first period for boarding. That gave Latvia a five-minute power play to start the game and immediately put pressure on Pettersson and Willander on the penalty kill — pressure that they met by helping Sweden kill off all five minutes.

Pettersson and Willander played all the hits

With Salomonsson out for the game, Pettersson stepped up to lead Sweden in ice time with 21:07, playing primarily with Havelid. He was credited with two shots on goal.

More importantly, the 6’4” Pettersson played a physical game. For instance, he wiped out Latvian captain Dans Ločmelis in the corner while killing Salomonsson’s penalty. 

Willander was joined by seventh defenceman Theo Lindstein on the second pairing and finished with 19:27 in ice time. While he didn’t register a point or a shot on goal, he was nearly as physical as Pettersson.

This open-ice hit by Willander on Emils Vickaktins in the neutral zone was one of the biggest hits of the game. 

Beyond the physical play, both Pettersson and Willander played a mobile, rush-crushing game, repeatedly closing the gap on Latvian forwards to angle them into the boards. Despite the larger ice surface in Sweden, there was little room for Latvia to maneuver and both Pettersson and Willander were excellent in that regard, with the older Pettersson the better of the two.

The star among the three Canucks prospects, however, was Lekkerimäki with his two-goal game.

Lekkerimäki's lethal shot

It took some time for Lekkerimäki to calibrate his shot, as he missed the net multiple times on early power plays while freely firing away. Once he dialed in, however, he was unstoppable.

It was already 2-0 for Sweden, with both goals coming on the power play, when Lekkerimäki scored his first goal of the game. First, Lekkerimäki drew the penalty to put Sweden back on the power play. He didn’t manage to draw a penalty for being manhandled on the rush but got in Niks Fenenko’s face to draw an extra jab to the chin behind the play.

Eight seconds into that power play, Lekkerimäki capitalized. He rotated up into the high slot and unleashed his wicked wrist shot.

The shot wasn’t as much about power for Lekkerimäki but instead about getting the shot off quickly at the right time to best take advantage of Wahlberg’s screen. It was also perfectly placed, beating goaltender Deivs Rolovs cleanly.

Lekkerimäki scored his second goal at 5-on-5, taking a pass from Lindstein to score Sweden’s sixth goal of the game.

The technique on Lekkerimäki’s shot is flawless. He takes a quick stickhandle to settle the puck in his pocket, then puts a ton of force downward to get a major flex on his stick in very little time, firing the puck forward through the defender and through Rolovs’ five-hole just over the goaltender’s stick.

Lekkerimäki had a team-high five shots on goal and had at least that many more shot attempts that missed or were blocked. He finished with 14:20 of ice time, as Sweden spread the minutes around in the third period with a large lead.

A confident, involved Lekkerimäki

Beyond the goals and shots, Lekkerimäki was involved throughout the game. There were times he lapsed into his old habits of floating off the puck and letting the puck come to him, but he got more assertive as the game went on, flashing some fancy puckwork in the second and third periods.

This sequence from the third period was especially nice, even if it didn’t lead to a chance.

Lekkerimäki receives the initial pass through his own legs, then executes a lovely toe-drag around the Latvian defender to gain the offensive zone. There’s a maturity element here too, as he doesn’t try to force the play after the entry, but smartly curls to the boards to maintain possession, then sets up an onrushing teammate.

Lekkerimäki even got physical at times, even if he’s not as stout as Pettersson or Willander. 

Overall, it was a promising start to the tournament for all three prospects but particularly for Lekkerimäki. The two goals have to be a nice confidence boost for the winger after he struggled at last year’s tournament while coming off an injury. 

Sweden has high hopes for a gold medal on home ice and will need Lekkerimäki to continue to score goals to make that happen.