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Lekkerimaki has Canuck fans smiling as he leads Sweden to WJC final

Vancouver’s top prospect scores twice as host team moves on to face U.S.
Sweden’s Otto Stenberg (25) celebrates a goal by teammate Sweden’s Theo Lindstein (not shown) in front of Czechia goaltender Michael Hrabal (30) and Marek Alscher (27) during first period semifinal hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, Thursday Jan. 4, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

Jonathan Lekkerimaki doesn’t say much in front of the cameras or behind the scenes.

The Vancouver Canucks prospect does his talking on the ice.

It’s a big reason why Sweden sits one win from the country’s third gold medal at the world junior hockey championship.

Lekkerimaki scored twice in the third period as the hosts beat Czechia 5-2 on Thursday to set up a mouth-watering final against the United States.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Lekkerimaki said of Friday’s gold-medal game. “Very excited.”

The 19-year-old and his teammates will meet a motivated opponent after the Americans battled back from an early 2-0 deficit to beat Finland 3-2 in the other semifinal. The Finns and Czechs will play for bronze.

The U.S. lost to Sweden at the under-18 worlds in 2022 before the 2005 age group got a measure of revenge in the 2023 rematch.

“Stripped the gold medal from our necks,” said Cutter Gauthier, who scored Thursday’s winner. “We remember it like yesterday.”

American captain Rutger McGroarty, another player born in 2004 on the wrong end of things in 2022, is ready for the jeers from the partisan crowd — including plenty of Canadians cheering on the Swedes — at Scandinavium arena.

“I don’t know who doesn’t love that, being the bad guy,” said the Winnipeg Jets prospect. “We’re up for being the bad guy and getting a gold medal on their home turf.”

Sweden will be their toughest test to date.

Lekkerimaki bagged his fifth and sixth goals of the under-20 event inside a raucous rink to snap a 2-2 tie through 40 minutes.

“He’s pretty laid back, but can give some fun comments,” said linemate Noah Ostlhund, who scored Sweden’s fourth goal and added an assist. “He’s a good guy.”

A teenager of few words, Lekkerimaki blasted a one-timer past Michael Hrabal on Sweden’s first man advantage at 5:14 of the third to make it 3-2.

“Quiet guy, definitely,” Swedish head coach Marcus Havelid said. “But that’s OK. We are all different.”

Ostlund then added his third goal on a breakaway with eight minutes left to make it 4-2 before Lekkerimaki, who had a game-high nine shots, sealed things with his sixth just 1:02 later.

Axel Sandin Pellikka and Theo Lindstein also had a goal and an assist each for Sweden. Hugo Havelid made 23 saves.

“Not afraid to do things on the ice,” Sandin Pellikka said of Lekkerimaki, selected 15th overall at the 2022 NHL draft. “Goes out there and plays his game.


Despite a long list of talent-loaded rosters, the Swedes have only won the world juniors twice, with the country’s last triumph coming in 2012 after previously topping the field in 1981.

“Try to think of the opportunity,” defenceman Tom Willander, picked 11th overall in June by Vancouver, said of playing for gold. “Don’t see the negative, try to push those thoughts away of anything going wrong and just seeing more of what a possibility it is.”

Sweden made the final in front of its fans in 1993 and 2014, but twice settled for silver.

“Terrific opportunity,” Sandin Pellikka said.

Matyas Melovsky and Tomas Cibulka scored for Czechia, which upset Canada 3-2 in the quarterfinals. Hrabal stopped 26 shots.

Finland, meanwhile, jumped out to that early lead before the Americans, who are looking for a sixth gold after last winning in 2021, responded with two in the second.

Gauthier then scored a late power-play goal as the U.S. remained the tournament’s only undefeated team. Jimmy Snuggerud and Will Smith had the other goals for the Americans, who got 19 saves from Tre Augustine, including one late with his skate blade on a scramble.

Oiva Keskinen and Rasmus Kumpulainen replied for the Finns. Niklas Kokko stopped 27 shots.

The Swedes, who have finished second 11 times, lost to the U.S. in last year’s bronze-medal game.

Melovsky opened Thursday’s scoring at 6:55 of the first for the Czechs, who lost the 2023 final to Canada in Halifax, before Lindstein fired home his second when Hrabal whiffed on a fluttering point shot at 11:52.

The Swedes pushed ahead 2-1 just 2:35 into the middle period when Sandin Pellikka’s point shot once again fooled the hulking Hrabal high on the glove side for the defenceman’s second.

The Czechs responded again on a power play 5:01 later when Cibulka hammered his second on a one-timer before Lekkerimaki dragged Sweden into its first final since falling to Canada in 2018.

“From anywhere, he can just score,” Willander said. “Dangerous player.”

Lekkerimaki said he hadn’t spoken to Swedish-born Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin at the tournament as his country looks to step atop the world junior podium for just the third time.

Does he feel pressure?

“Nope,” Lekkerimaki replied. “It’s just hockey.”

For these countries — especially in this age group — Friday means a lot more.

READ ALSO: Czechia scores late 3-2 winner to eliminate Canada from world juniors