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Lekkerimäki and Sweden survive surprisingly strong Swiss squad in World Junior opener

A disciplined Switzerland team gave Sweden a scare in their first game of the 2022 World Junior Championship.
Sweden Switzerland 2022 World Junior Championship
Daniel Ljungman and Linus Sjodin look up at the Swedish flag after defeating Switzerland in their first game of the 2022 World Junior Championship.

Day two of the 2022 World Junior Championship saw just one Vancouver Canucks prospect in action, but it was their top prospect: Jonathan Lekkerimäki.

The 15th-overall pick from the 2022 NHL Entry Draft is the youngest player on Sweden’s roster, having turned 18 just over two weeks before the start of the tournament. Still, he’s expected to play a significant role for the Tre Kronor after leading the Under-18 Championship in scoring.

Sweden’s 2021 World Juniors ended in disappointment, as they were knocked out in the quarterfinals by Finland. They’ll be looking for a much better result in this year’s tournament but a near-upset from Switzerland might be a wake-up call — it won’t be an easy task. 

Sweden 3 - 2 Switzerland

Lekkerimäki started the game on Sweden’s second line with Colorado Avalanche first-round pick Oskar Olausson and Detroit Red Wings second-round pick Theodor Niederbach. Unfortunately, his line couldn’t create much offence early in the game, but that was true of the entire Swedish team.

Switzerland played this game like a fine-tuned Swiss watch: exacting, disciplined, and never stopping. It was a stifling defensive performance, as they combined excellent positioning with an aggressive, physical game, giving Sweden limited time and space with the puck and no access to the middle of the ice.

Swedish forwards were repeatedly punished with massive hits along the boards and in open ice and Switzerland did it while staying out of the penalty box and repeatedly drawing penalties of their own. 

Sweden took three penalties in the first period alone, which led to Switzerland out-shooting Sweden 9-to-4 in the opening frame. It also kept Lekkerimäki off the ice, as he doesn’t play on the penalty kill.

If Switzerland had been able to capitalize on any of their power play opportunities, this could have been a very different game, but they couldn’t find that finishing touch. Instead, the score remained knotted at 0-0 until late in the second period.

It took some line juggling to wake up Sweden’s offence and Lekkerimäki ended up bumped down the lineup. He was replaced on the second line by Winnipeg Jets second-round pick Daniel Torgersson and it immediately paid dividends.

The bigger, older Torgersson immediately got Sweden on the board on his first shift on the second line. Torgersson went to the slot and, when a point shot was partially blocked, swatted a backhand past Swiss goaltender Noah Patenaude.

The quick goal meant the switched-up lines were permanent. Lekkerimäki spent the third period on a line with his Djurgärdens linemate Liam Öhgren — the second-youngest player on Sweden — and Åke Stakkestad. Öhgren was taken four picks after Lekkerimäki by the Minnesota Wild, while Stakkestad is the lone undrafted player on Sweden’s roster.

Torgersson scored early in the third period as well, then Buffalo Sabres first-round pick Isak Rosen made it 3-0 Sweden 10 seconds later. It seemed like Sweden had the game well in hand at that point, but Switzerland fought back with a pair of quick goals of their own when Attilio Biasca and Dario Allenspach — both undrafted — scored one minute apart.

Sweden’s lack of discipline gave Switzerland a golden opportunity to tie up and win the game late in the third period when Niederbach took his third penalty of the game — a boarding major that gave Switzerland a five-minute power play. Fortunately for Sweden, Switzerland once again couldn’t capitalize and they held on to the one-goal lead for the win.

Lekkerimäki was quiet — a little too quiet

It was a quiet game for Lekkerimäki, who finished with just 10:59 in ice time because of all the penalties and swapping lines with Torgersson, who was named Sweden’s best player of the game.

While Lekkerimäki had his moments, he was a little bit too passive — waiting and reacting instead of asserting himself and creating opportunities. Sometimes that passivity paid off, such as this sequence where he patiently read the play and picked off the pass instead of blindly barreling in on the forecheck. 

That play led to him setting up a good shot for his linemate, but too often Lekkerimäki spent a lot of time waiting for someone else to make something happen. It's not that Lekkerimäki had a bad game — he didn't make any mistakes or turnovers that gave Switzerland opportunities — but he didn't have a particularly good game either.

It cannot be emphasized enough — Lekkerimäki is the youngest player on his team. This was also an extremely tight-checking game from Switzerland that made it exceptionally difficult for the entire Swedish team to create chances. An underwhelming performance in his first-ever World Junior game isn't an indictment on Lekkerimäki in any way.

Still, it’s incumbent on Lekkerimäki to take this opening game and learn from it — he has to be more assertive to win the puck and get to the middle of the ice. He finished the game with just one shot on goal and it was from distance with little chance of going in.

Lekkerimäki and Sweden’s next game will be Friday against Austria, who should prove an easier opponent than Switzerland. 
 

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