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Canucks prospects survive Swiss scare, slide into semifinals at World Juniors

Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Elias Pettersson, and Tom Willander played key roles as Sweden slipped by Switzerland in the quarterfinals at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Jonathan Lekkerimäki celebrates a goal for Sweden at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship.

The three Vancouver Canucks prospects on Team Sweden at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship helped their country cruise through the round robin stage, finishing on top of Group A to give them a favourable matchup against Switzerland in the quarterfinals. Everything was lining up for the favourites to win the gold medal on home ice in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Then it nearly all fell apart.

While Sweden undoubtedly outplayed Switzerland, out-shooting them 33-to-18, Switzerland has a knack for keeping these types of big games close and pushed the powerhouse Swedes to overtime through a combination of excellent goaltending, disciplined defending, and timely scoring.

Ultimately, Sweden prevailed with a power play goal to move on to the quarterfinals but it was far too close for comfort.

As for the Canucks’ three prospects on Sweden, they were heavily involved in the outcome, with a Canucks prospect picking up a point on all three of Sweden’s goals in the 3-2 win.

Elias Pettersson

In Sweden’s final round-robin game against Finland, Elias Pettersson struggled and was on the ice for all four of Finland’s goals. He bounced back against Swtizerland with a much stronger performance.

Pettersson even picked up his first point of the tournament on the game’s opening goal, though it wasn’t the most exciting assist. It was a simple D-to-D pass along the blue line to set up a point shot by Mattias Havelid that Otto Stenberg deftly tipped in just 1:34 into the first period.

The early goal might have made Sweden believe this would be a romp, but Switzerland tightened up their defensive efforts afterwards to keep things close.

Meanwhile, Pettersson continued to play his brand of physical defence, hammering Leo Braillard into the corner boards midway through the first.

Pettersson got caught puck-watching a few times gainst Finland but he was far better defensively against Switzerland, closing gaps quickly with his skating and disrupting plays with his active stick. 

He even got a bit more active offensively in the third period after Switzerland tied the game, activating up the right side twice on one shift, which is a positive habit to see from him, even if nothing resulted from it.

It was a solid, all-around game for Pettersson. Even when he was on the ice for a goal against, it wasn’t his fault. Late in the second period, Pettersson’s teammates seemingly couldn’t stop giving the puck away, resulting in a long shift in the Sweden zone. While Pettersson engaged with his man in front, no one picked up Jan Hornecker in the slot, and he fired in the one-timer.

Jonathan Lekkerimäki

When you watch Jonathan Lekkerimäki shoot the puck, it’s hard to avoid hyperbole. His wristshot seems unstoppable, though it mustn’t be, as Lekkerimäki had nine shots on goal in this game and only scored once.

Lekkerimäki was second among Swedish forwards with 22:26 in ice time, getting a ton of minutes because of overtime and the power play. While he played a strong game off the puck, it was his work with the puck that shone, as he scored a fantastic goal on the power play late in the first period to make it 2-0.

That shot is simply absurd. The outside edge of the faceoff circle is not the best spot to shoot from — NHL shooters typically try to get closer to the middle of the ice — but Lekkerimäki doesn’t need much of a shooting lane to find the back of the net. The shot goes through the legs of Timo Bunzli and grazes the shoulder of goaltender Allessio Beglieri on its way off the far post and in.

That’s the kind of shot that should make Lekkerimäki a force on the power play in the NHL but the really encouraging part is how much he’s improved the other elements of his game. He’s more physical now and more engaged defensively. A pest element has crept into his game, where he’s started getting under the skin of his opponents.

Take this hit in the third period that led to Lekkerimäki getting mugged by the appropriately named Leon Muggli.

That’s the type of play that should draw a penalty and earn a power play but the tackle was inexplicably not called — not the most inexplicable of the referees’ decisions in this game. 

After Switzerland tied the game in the third period, the officials handed Sweden a chance to win the game in regulation with one of the softest penalty calls I’ve ever seen at any time, let alone in the final minutes of a tied, single-elimination game at an international tournament. 

Nick Meile, who scored the tying goal, poked at Filip Bystadt with his stick after a whistle and this was interpreted initially as a five-minute spearing major.

The officials reviewed the call and downgraded it to a two-minute slashing minor but it shouldn’t have been a penalty at all.

That lousy call was likely foremost on the minds of the Swiss when the officials called a penalty in overtime. It was the right call — Rodwin Dionicio got his stick into the hands of the Swedish player for a pretty blatant hook — but it’s understandable that the Swiss felt aggrieved given the terrible earlier call and some of the things that went uncalled.

Sweden took advantage of the overtime power play, as Axel Sandin-Pellikka took a pass from Lekkerimäki and fired a shot just inside the far post.

The assist wasn’t anything special but it did give Lekkerimäki two points in the game and seven points in five games, tied for the team lead in the tournament.

Tom Willander

It was a relatively quiet game for Tom Willander but that’s largely a good thing. Willander was third among Swedish defence in ice time with 21:22 and most of that ice time was spent in the offensive zone. He was solid defensively and, for the most part, crisp on the breakout.

The one exception was a dangerous turnover in the first period, as Willander tried to force a soft pass up the middle of the ice instead of making a safer play. That’s the kind of play Willander should not be making and he knew it, cleaning up his game after that mistake.

Aside from that, Willander played largely mistake-free hockey against Switzerland and made a crucial play on the penalty kill in the third period with the score tied at two. 

Call it luck that the backdoor pass hit Willander’s glove, but he was in the right place at the right time to prevent what could have been Switzerland’s best chance at upsetting Sweden.

Now Sweden heads into the semifinals, assured of at least playing for a medal. They’ll face Czechia, who stunned Team Canada 3-2 in their quarterfinal matchup, at 6:00 a.m. PST on Thursday, January 4 on TSN.