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Canucks' Jonathan Lekkerimäki named World Junior MVP

Lekkerimäki and his fellow Canucks prospects fell short of the gold medal with Sweden, losing to Team USA in the final.
Jonathan Lekkerimäki finished the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship with 7 goals and 10 points in 7 games and was named tournament MVP.

Expectations were high for Team Sweden at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship. They were playing on home ice with a team that had largely been together for years since winning the gold medal at the 2022 World Under-18 Championship.

For the most part, Sweden lived up to those expectations, led by Vancouver Canucks prospect Jonathan Lekkerimäki. Sweden finished on top of Group A in the round robin, survived a scare from Switzerland in the quarterfinal, then took down Czechia in the semifinal to get to the gold medal game.

In the final, however, Sweden had to face the favourites: the powerhouse Team USA that they had just barely defeated two years earlier in the Under-18 gold medal game.

Lekkerimäki and his fellow Canucks prospects, Elias Pettersson and Tom Willander, couldn’t match the star power on Team USA, falling 6-2 and taking home the silver medal.

It wasn’t all bad news for Lekkerimäki. He was named to the tournament All-Star team and was also named the World Junior MVP after tying for the tournament lead in goalscoring with seven goals in seven games. He led Sweden with 10 points and showcased some additional sides to his game beyond his elite shot, like a surprising physical element and a pesky two-way game that might make him a pest in the future.

Lekkerimäki had a strong performance in the gold medal game but it wasn’t quite enough.

Sweden couldn't capitalize on early chances

Sweden came out hot in the first period, with Lekkerimäki creating some of their early chances. 

A few minutes in, Lekkerimäki tracked back and picked off a neutral zone pass for a quick counterattack, with Noah Ostlund missing the net on the rebound.

Willander made some strong defensive plays in the first period, using his physicality on the boards to break up USA possessions, such as this one where he tracked his man up to the blue line and separated him from the puck, allowing Lekkerimäki to get the zone exit.

Despite Sweden carrying the early momentum, it was Team USA that struck first, opening the scoring on a delayed penalty. 

Pettersson got on the scoresheet when Sweden tied the game early in the second period. The Otto Stenberg line tired out Team USA down low, then moved the puck up to Pettersson at the point. He moved it across to Mattias Havelid, whose point shot was tipped in neatly by Stenberg.

Pettersson finished the tournament with just two points, both secondary assists, but was a workhorse in the defensive zone for Sweden all tournament. He played 19:13 in the gold medal game, third among Swedish defencemen.

While Willander was good in the first period, a defensive mistake in the second period cost Sweden. He lost track of Isaac Howard in the neutral zone and Drew Fortescue sprung Howard on a breakaway with a hard pass around the boards. Willander couldn’t catch Howard, who tucked the puck five-hole on Hugo Havelid.

Unleashing Lekkerimäki's elite shot

After Howard banked a shot off Havelid’s skate to make it 3-1, Willander partially made up for his earlier mistake by drawing a tripping penalty on a foray up the right wing. That allowed Lekkerimäki to get to work on the power play.

Moments after passing up what seemed to be a prime opportunity to shoot, Lekkerimäki absolutely obliterated a one-timer from above the left faceoff circle with just five seconds remaining in the second period.

This is what Lekkerimäki does best: he finds space on the power play and then finds the back of the net. 

Knowing that the penalty killers were shading towards him to try to take away the threat of his shot, Lekkerimäki simply moved higher in the zone, giving him more room to unleash a one-timer. The puck seemed to take a slight deflection off of the defenceman in front but it might not have mattered.

That was a key goal to bring Sweden within one heading into the third period but that’s when things went awry.

After a flubbed pass by Willander at the offensive blue line, Sweden iced the puck and Team USA took advantage of the offensive zone faceoff, with Zeev Buium fooling Havelid with a slap shot from the point to make it 4-2.

Pettersson and Willander helped Sweden kill off a four-minute USA power play to keep things from getting out of hand but it was to no avail. With four minutes left, Ryan Leonard got past Ostlund and Elias Salomonsson to make it 5-2, essentially ending the game.

Bad blood between Sweden and USA

Rutger McGroarty added an empty netter to make it 6-2, then things got feisty in the final minutes. Some slashes and crosschecks in the neutral zone turned into gloved punches — the closest thing the World Juniors have seen to a brawl in years. Lekkerimäki was involved, taking a crosscheck from Cutter Gauthier that was part of the build-up to the whole kerfuffle.

It was messy and took a long time to get sorted out. There was evidently still some bad blood by the time of the medal presentations, as Lekkerimäki stopped in the midst of the handshake line — where typically all things are forgiven — to say something to Gauthier.

It's unclear exactly what was said — Gauthier was dismissive of the moment after the game, saying he simply said, "Good game" and wished him the best — but there's no denying the hilarity of the rest of Team USA craning their necks to try to catch a piece of hot gossip.

The Canucks prospects have nothing to be ashamed of

While it was a tough loss for Sweden and their Canucks prospects, there was no shame in their performance.

Lekkerimäki, in particular, had an excellent tournament. His shot looks like it will give NHL goaltenders nightmares for years, while the rest of his game is developing in a positive direction that will make it a lot easier for his future NHL coach to trust him.

Pettersson played a heavy, physical game that bodes well for his NHL chances even if the offensive side of his game is lacking.

Willander needs work on his puckhandling but his mobility and active stick made him difficult to beat in the defensive zone: Howard’s breakaway goal was the only goal against Sweden the entire tournament with Willander on the ice. He is still eligible for one more World Juniors and is likely to play a major role next year.

Falling short of the gold medal will sting but the silver medal is an excellent consolation prize.