The two remaining Vancouver Canucks prospects at the 2023 World Junior Championship won’t be playing for gold on Thursday.
Winger Jonathan Lekkerimäki and defenceman Elias Pettersson were in the lineup for Sweden as they faced off against Czechia in the first of two semifinal games on Wednesday. Up until the final minute of the game, it looked like Sweden was going to win and move on to play for the gold medal for the first time in five years.
Unfortunately, one Canucks prospect played a crucial role in why they will instead be playing for bronze.
Pettersson's nearly flawless game
It was a strong game overall for Elias Pettersson, who had 19:42 in ice time, which was fourth among Swedish defencemen.
What stood out early in the game for Pettersson was his skating, where he showed nice bursts of speed and mobility to escape from pressure in the defensive zone to facilitate zone exits. Sometimes, those zone exits were nerve-wracking, as in this quick evasion when faced with two forecheckers, but he was effective at moving the puck out of the defensive zone.
Pettersson has also been a go-to defenceman on the penalty kill for Sweden all tournament, helping them to a 94.74% penalty-killing percentage. That’s the best in the tournament, matched only by Czechia — both teams have only allowed one goal on 19 power play opportunities.
Pettersson showed he was willing to pay the price on the penalty kill, coming up with a big shot block near the end of the first period, then clearing the puck the length of the ice from his knees.
While I’m not fond of Pettersson’s tendency to keep his stick fully extended when defending the rush — it limits his ability to surprise an opponent with a pokecheck — it’s hard to argue with his results. His mobility and reach make him hard to beat, especially when he’s on his natural left side.
Pettersson didn’t just contribute defensively, however. He tallied his second point of the tournament on Sweden’s lone goal, putting a puck perfectly in the wheelhouse of his defence partner Ludvig Jansson, who hammered a one-timer past Tomas Suchanek.
Pettersson even drew a penalty when he was hooked down by Petr Hauser. Just five seconds into the power play, Matyas Sapovaliv cleared the puck over the glass from his own zone, giving Sweden a long 5-on-3, but the Swedish power play was unable to convert.
That proved to be a crucial turning point in the game. With Sweden unable to extend their lead, Czechia stayed alive and pushed hard for the tying goal in the third period, out-shooting Sweden 14-to-3.
The heartbreak of one mistake
Pettersson was leaned on heavily to defend the one-goal lead, with his 6:55 in ice time in the third period second only to Victor Sjoholm among Swedish defencemen. That might be a bit misleading, considering he was stuck on the ice for one shift that lasted 2:33 in the final five minutes when his forwards couldn’t get the puck deep for him to make a line change.
Still, it shows how much his coaches were relying on Pettersson that he was right back out on the ice with one minute left in a 1-0 game. Unfortunately, that’s when things went wrong.
Sweden won a faceoff at centre ice and Pettersson got the puck. With time and space, Pettersson made the unfortunate decision — perhaps because of fatigue from the two-and-a-half-minute shift shortly before this moment — and shot the puck off the boards, sending it the length of the ice for an unnecessary icing.
That gave Czechia an offensive zone faceoff that allowed them to get their goaltender out for the extra attacker. Sweden won the faceoff but lost a battle along the boards and a couple of quick passes led to David Jiricek firing a low one-timer that slid under the right pad of Swedish goaltender Carl Lindbom.
Pettersson understandably looked to the heavens in disbelief. It was a tough ending to a strong night for the Canucks prospect, who didn’t get a shift in the 3-on-3 overtime. Unfortunately for Pettersson, it only got worse, as Czechia completed the comeback in the extra frame.
After Sweden came agonizingly close to the win with a puck pulled off the goal line Czech forward Jiri Kulich stepped around Fabian Wagner (no relation) on the right wing and snapped the puck under Lindbom’s arm with just 49 seconds remaining to make it 2-1 and send Czechia to the gold medal game.
It just shows how narrow the margin between victory and defeat can be. Pettersson did so many positive things in this game but that one negative thing proved to be a difference-maker.
Lekkerimäki’s limited role
At least Pettersson had an impact on the game, both positive and negative. You would be forgiven if you didn’t notice Jonathan Lekkerimäki at all.
The Canucks’ first-round pick from 2022 was the 13th forward against Czechia, only occasionally taking a shift with his Djurgårdens linemates, Noah Ostlund and Liam Ohgren. He had the lowest ice time among Swedish forwards, playing just 4:24 in total.
In that ice time, he did manage to have two notable moments. On the puck-over-glass penalty that gave Sweden a 5-on-3, Lekkerimäki simultaneously high-sticked Sapovaliv as he shot it over the glass and should have received an off-setting minor penalty.
Lekkerimäki’s other moment was a nice pass after stepping off the bench, setting up Isak Rosen for a pretty good scoring chance.
That was about it for Lekkerimäki, who didn’t get much of an opportunity to redeem himself for an underwhelming performance during the rest of the World Juniors. He didn’t see the ice in overtime despite setting up Sweden’s only overtime game-winner of the tournament, which happened to be against Czechia.
Sweden will be in a tough spot to go home with a medal, as they’ll face either Canada or Team USA, neither of whom will be an easy matchup. Sweden had no answer for Connor Bedard in a 5-1 loss to Canada during the preliminary round.