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Canucks prospects finish top of Group A at World Juniors

A shootout loss to rival Finland at the end of the round-robin stage of the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship wasn't enough to keep Sweden out of first in Group A.
Jonathan Lekkerimäki battles teammate Isac Born during a Sweden practice at the 2024 World Junior Championship.

Through their first three games at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship, Sweden looked invincible. They didn’t allow a single goal against in those three games, which isn’t necessarily surprising when it’s Latvia and Germany, but they also shut out Team Canada. 

On Sunday, however, Finland showed that Sweden is a lot more vincible than they initially seemed, eking out a 5-4 shootout win over the tournament favourites.

Fortunately for Sweden and their three Vancouver Canucks prospects, they already had the top spot in Group A sewn up, ensuring a favourable match-up against the fourth-place team in Group B in the quarterfinals. Still, any loss to Finland, their most fervent rival, won’t sit well.

The Canucks prospects — Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Tom Willander, and Elias Pettersson — have played a major role for Sweden throughout the round robin stage and that remained the case against Finland. This time, though, that role wasn’t entirely positive.

Elias Pettersson

Heading into the tournament, Pettersson wasn’t expected to be Sweden’s number one defenceman in ice time but that’s the role he’s taken so far, averaging 20:37 per game. He’s been a beast defensively, using his mobility and physicality in equal measure to erase opposing rushes and break up cycles along the boards.

Against Finland, however, things didn’t work out quite so well for Pettersson, who was on the ice for all four Finnish goals during regulation.

As if often the case with such things, it wasn’t entirely Pettersson’s fault. There were breakdowns and turnovers and entire plays that had nothing to do with Pettersson. But it was still far from Pettersson’s best game.

Finland came out flying, with far more to prove than Sweden after some early struggles in the tournament. In the first period, Finland out-shot Sweden 9-to-4 and scored two goals off rebounds. Both times, it was Pettersson’s man who got to the rebound to score.

The first goal came off a faceoff in the Swedish zone, where Sweden’s forwards couldn’t get out to challenge Kasper Halttunen’s shot. Pettersson went down to one knee looking for the block but that prevented him from getting body position on Tommi Mannisto, who was first to the rebound.

The second goal came off a turnover by Oskar Pettersson (no relation) at the blue line. Pettersson got his stick in the lane to disrupt Lenni Hameenaho’s shot but then didn’t stick with the Finnish forward and instead jabbed at the puck. That left Hameenaho wide open to pop in another rebound.

Pettersson wasn’t as much at fault on the other two Finnish goals in the second and third periods. One came on a power play one-timer from the opposite side that Pettersson plays. While Pettersson was in the vicinity of the late third-period game-tying goal that sent the game to overtime, the goal had more to do with his teammates abandoning the net front while he watched the backdoor. Perhaps he could have made a stronger play to adapt to the situation but he wasn't directly to blame.

Beyond the goals against, Pettersson had some struggles with the hard-forechecking Finns and was guilty several times of getting caught on the wrong side of his check. He was lucky not to pick up holding penalties on a few different plays.

There’s a reason why Pettersson played just 17:23 in this game, fifth among Sweden’s defencemen, rather than leading them in ice time.

On the other hand, Pettersson, who has yet to record a point in the tournament, showed more of an offensive dimension, particularly in Sweden’s strong second period. He was activating more in the offensive zone to find and create open space, with his best play being a great pass to Otto Stenberg for a grade-A scoring chance.

One rough game doesn’t erase a strong tournament and Sweden will likely still heavily rely on Pettersson’s defensive game the rest of the way.

Tom Willander

Willander scored the opening goal against Canada — assisted by Lekkerimäki — which stood up as the game-winner and he helped get Sweden on the board against Finland.

After Finland owned the first period, Sweden dominated the second, out-shooting Finland 16-to-4. It was a fantastic response to being down 2-0 after the first period and they scored four goals in the middle frame.

The first came off a smart play by Willander. He took a pass from Noah Ostlund with traffic in front but instead of just hammering a point shot towards the net, he spotted Anton Wahlberg skating into the slot and sent a hard pass to him for a deflection.

Finnish goaltender Noa Vali spilled out a rebound and Isac Born shoved the puck under Vali and in to make it 2-1.

Beyond the assist, Willander had a solid all-around game, finishing second in ice time among Swedish defencemen with 21:28 behind Axel Sandin Pellikka. Willander has formed a strong partnership with Theo Lindstein on Sweden’s second pairing and the two spent as little time as possible in their own end of the ice, typically breaking the puck out cleanly with both their skating and passing.

Willander was still relatively quiet offensively but he was more willing to activate in the offensive zone and find open space. The opportunities to do so were just few and far between against Finland.

It will be interesting to see if Willander and Lindstein continue to get more ice time as the tournament heads into the elimination rounds, as Willander has been very consistent and Lindsteind is one of the tournament’s top scorers among defencemen.

Jonathan Lekkerimäki

After Willander helped Sweden get on the board in the second period, Lekkerimäki tied the game with one of his typically gorgeous wristshots on the power play.

Lekkerimäki took a pass from Ostlund, stepped to the top of the left faceoff circle, and let fly.

It didn’t need to be a perfect shot, as Vali was leaning the wrong way to look around Wahlberg in front, but it was a perfect shot. The puck hummed off his stick, a laser that went off the post and in at incredible speed.

Lekkerimäki nearly got another in the third period, sending a hot shot off a faceoff win in the Finnish zone, but Vali got just enough of the puck with his glove to send it wide. He also had one of Sweden’s few chances in overtime, hammering a one-timer that was stopped by a sliding Vali.

Lekkerimäki also had Sweden’s only goal in the shootout, making it look all-too-easy. He skated wide to the left, cut back across into the slot, and took advantage of the opening that created in Vali’s stance with a quick snap shot.

Perhaps his teammates should’ve taken a page from Lekkerimäki’s book but they mostly tried to deke the puck into the net and were stymied every time by Vali the rest of the way. Finland’s five shooters scored twice in the shootout and that was it.

What impresses me about Lekkerimäki is how much he has clearly worked on the aspects of his game aside from his shot. He’s stronger on the puck in board battles, better positioned in the defensive zone, and more involved in creating chances for his teammates with his playmaking. Lekkerimäki was second among Swedish forwards in ice time, playing 21:16, as he keeps earning more trust in every situation.

Next up for Sweden and the Canucks’ prospects

With the first-place finish in Group A, Sweden will face Switzerland, who finished fourth in Group B. The game will be on Tuesday, January 2, and should be at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time on TSN and

Switzerland had just one win during the round robin stage, defeating the winless Norway 6-2. 

While Switzerland can be a tough out at the World Juniors when they have some star power on their side, that isn’t the case this year, with just one NHL-drafted prospect on their roster: Anaheim Ducks fifth-round pick Rodwin Dionicio.

Sweden should be able to beat Switzerland and move into the semifinals but they shouldn’t take any team lightly at this point.