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Canucks prospects win second straight at World Juniors with Sweden

Jonathan Lekkerimäki, Elias Pettersson, and Tom Willander continued their strong play for Sweden as they faced Germany.
Canucks prospect Jonathan Lekkerimäki skates to the bench to celebrate a goal with Sweden at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Sweden has yet to give up a goal against at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship through two games.

That’s partly due to facing the two weakest teams in Group A, Latvia and Germany, but it’s also thanks to the defensive efforts of two of the three Vancouver Canucks prospects on Sweden: Elias Pettersson and Tom Willander. Meanwhile, Jonathan Lekkerimäki continues to be one of Sweden’s most dynamic offensive threats.

Facing a German team on Thursday that had just upset Finland 4-3 in their previous game, Sweden didn’t take their opponents lightly. St. Louis Blues prospect Otto Stenberg was the offensive star for Sweden, tallying a hat trick on his way to being named Sweden’s player of the game.

The game was far tighter than the 5-0 final score would indicate, with Germany defending well in their own zone and keeping Sweden to the outside despite their advantage in shots. It was only in the third period that Sweden truly broke the game open and put Germany away for good.

Let’s break down how each of the Canucks’ prospects performed.

Jonathan Lekkerimäki

While Lekkerimäki is known for his fantastic shot, he was far more involved as a playmaker in this game, finding ways to maneuver through Germany’s tight defensive structure to set up his teammates for scoring chances.

He got started early in the first period, as Lekkerimäki stickhandled through the neutral zone, made a nice move to gain the offensive zone, then dropped the puck to Noah Ostlund for a chance from the high slot that Ostlund rung off the post.

Lekkerimäki was noticeable in transition with his ability to make defenders miss with his deft puckhandling. 

He then set up Ostlund for another glorious chance in the second period, slipping a pass under a defender’s triangle to send Ostlund in all alone, but he couldn’t find a gap under goaltender Matthias Bittner. 

One of Lekkerimäki’s setups for Ostlund finally paid off in the third period.

Lekkerimäki picked off a pass in the neutral zone and quickly turned to the attack. While he lost the handle on his toe-drag around one defender, he out-battled his man for the puck and poked it free to Ostlund, who found the five-hole just over Bittner’s stick.

Beyond Lekkerimäki getting a point — his third of the tournament — the most encouraging part of this play from a Canucks standpoint is all of the components that went into the play. 

Lekkerimäki had to be in the right spot at the right time while tracking back in the neutral zone to pick off the pass, then had to outwork his opponent to win the puck inside the blue line after gaining the zone. Those are promising indicators that he is adding dimension to his game.

That’s not to say that Lekkerimäki didn’t shoot the puck as well. He had three shots on goal, as well as a handful of attempts that were blocked or missed the net. He nearly scored on a one-timer on the power play but for Bittner’s blocker and he rung the crossbar on an opportunity he created for himself along the blue line.

It’s a marvelous shot that clearly fools Bittner. The way Lekkerimäki draws the puck in, he looks like he’s going to fling the puck blocker side through traffic, but then he suddenly opens up his blade and pushes the puck glove side instead, beating the goaltender cleanly but not the crossbar.

Beyond the shot, it’s the effort at getting to the inside and creating a chance from the middle of the ice that impresses. One criticism of Lekkerimäki in the past is that he was too often content to shoot from the outside; so far this tournament, he’s been far more aggressive about getting to the middle for his shots.

Elias Pettersson

This was a rough game for Pettersson — not in terms of how he played but in terms of potential injuries.

Early in the first period, Pettersson limped off the ice, with no clear indication of what might have caused an injury.

Pettersson was favouring his right leg as he left the ice but didn’t miss a shift. Even when he returned, however, he seemed to be skating gingerly and would occasionally flex and stretch out his right leg during stoppages. 

If he was injured, however, Pettersson didn’t let it slow him down. He led Sweden in ice time, playing 23:12 despite not playing on the Swedish power play, which had three opportunities in the game.

It’s clear that Pettersson is Sweden’s rock on defence, eating up minutes with his sound defensive play and physical game. He doesn’t do anything spectacular on the ice but he makes life difficult for opposing forwards by quickly closing their space and either deftly poking the puck away or erasing them into the boards.

Pettersson got dumped hard to the ice with just a few seconds left in the second period, which can’t have felt good if he was already nursing an injury. 

It wasn’t intentional on the part of Ralf Rollinger, who was just trying to stay onside and clipped Pettersson’s skates, but that didn’t prevent Pettersson from momentarily entertaining the thought of blasting the puck at Rollinger as the horn sounded. Fortunately, he had second thoughts and held up.

Tom Willander

Pettersson led Sweden in ice time but Willander was second with 19:32 despite also not playing on the power play. It’s a sign of how much the Swedish coaching staff trusts the 18-year-old defenceman.

Willander played a physical game right from his first shift, dumping his man to the ice behind the Swedish net, then poking the puck free. That led to Lekkerimäki’s transition up the ice and first setup for Ostlund.

That physical game continued throughout for Willander, such as this solid hit on 6’3” Eric Hördler to the ice along the boards in the defensive zone.

Willander wasn’t just defending with his body, however, as he used his excellent mobility to quickly close gaps and poke pucks away against the German rush. Between Pettersson and Willander, it was very difficult for Germany to gain any purchase inside of the Swedish zone.

Beyond his defensive game, Willander showed a little more offensive push. Late in the first period, he activated up the right side and found a gap as Germany over-committed to the strong side of the ice. 

It looked like a sure goal, but Bittner came up with arguably his best save of the game to rob Willander, then Filip Bystedt couldn’t put the rebound home, leaving Willander point-less on the night.

All around, it was a very positive night for Willander and his two fellow Canucks prospects, but their toughest test awaits them on Friday against Team Canada.