World Juniors 2024

EP Rinkside's 3 Stars from the semifinals of the 2024 World Juniors

GOTHENBURG, Sweden – With as much firepower as the Swedes have on their roster, all they needed was a small crack in the dam, and the floodgates would open.

Jonathan Lekkerimäki made that dent with the force of his slap shot 16 seconds into a power play he drew less than a minute into the third period, and suddenly, their offence was washing over the Czechs.

“They score one goal, we score one goal, and it’s 2-1, and then it’s 2-2,” Swedish head coach Magnus Hävelid said of the tight-checking back-and-forth of the first two periods. “We decided that, ‘Hey, we need to go 101 percent in here now.’ And when we [got] the chance on the power play, we got the power play goal. Jonathan gave us a 3-2 lead. I felt like the atmosphere in the arena was great and we got an extra energy. Then when we score 4-2, 5-2 – it was just a great third period actually.”

Sweden had kept up to that point, benefitting from a pair of lucky goals and keeping the game close. Michael Hrabal let two past him glove-side; first, a Theo Lindstein point shot that bounced off his trapper, and second, an Axel Sandin Pellikka point shot that he whiffed on entirely.

“It wasn’t an easy game for [Hrabal],” Czech head coach Patrik Augusta said. “They had really good point shots and the guys can shoot laser shots and they can fake it first – I believe in him and he had a strong performance after that first goal. It wasn’t easy for him… I don’t think he was the factor. I think the Swedes were better by one goal, and they won."

The Czechs pressed after Lekkerimäki's 3-2 goal. Tomáš Galvas led an odd-man rush one way that had the potential to result in the game-tying goal. But the Swedish defence held, regained possession, and eventually Lindstein sprang Noah Östlund for a breakaway in the opposite direction. And you know how that went.

“We played against a great team. Obviously, they have some very talented players, but we kept it close,” Augusta said. “I think it was a tight game going into the third period. We had the two breakaways in the second and didn’t score. They got a go-ahead goal on their PP. That would be the difference. After they scored the third goal, they kind of started flying a little higher. We had a chance. We had an outnumbered situation, a 4-on-2, and out of that situation, they had a breakaway and made it 4-2. At that time, we could feel the nervousness on our sticks and the puck was bouncing their way, which is normal in those games. I think it was the third goal that changed it. That changed the game.”

Once that backhand went up and in, everyone knew the result. Swedish goaltender Hugo Hävelid was in the zone. The Swedes didn't take their foot off the gas. Eventually, Lekkerimäki wired a slap shot past Hrabal for his second goal of the game, and that was the exclamation mark on a well-earned 5-2 win and a trip to the gold medal game.

1. Jonathan Lekkerimäki, RW, Sweden (Vancouver Canucks)

Jonathan Lekkerimäki is a man of few words, but he's not quite as shy of putting the puck on net. Through six games, the Canucks' first-rounder leads all skaters with 30 tries and he's found the back of the net six times, also good for the tournament lead. And without him, it's hard to imagine Sweden making it this far. That's why he's the frontrunner for the MVP going into the medal round.

Because for as important as a go-ahead, game-winning goal is definitionally, I think it's real importance lies in the context surrounding it. For five periods prior, the Swedish offence had sputtered out to near-nothingness. They controlled the run of play against Switzerland, and ultimately got the overtime goal necessary to advance to the semis, but at no point did they look particularly menacing during that stretch.

His power play goal in the third period changed that. It wasn't a softie or a fluke goal or anything to that effect. It was a shooter at the top of his game calling his shot. And the rest of the Swedish lineup seemed to take notice.

“Yeah, he’s a great player – a sniper,” Östlund said of Lekkerimäki's performance. “I love to play with him. He brings a lot of edge to our game and to our team.”

And he should know. It was Östlund who buried the dagger in Czechia's heart moments after Lekkerimäki's 3-2 goal, beating Hrabal on the breakaway.

Hävelid seems to have every bit as much appreciation for his star player's performance at this tournament, and perhaps just as critically, everything that went into it.

“One year ago, it was a lot of injuries, stuff like that. It was a tough year for him,” he told EP Rinkside. “This year, this summer, he had great off-ice practice, great offseason, picks up with Örebrö. So he comes in here now with great confidence. He’s a key player, of course. He was so important to this game. He’s the guy who can be on the ice, take responsibility, and you know, if you need to score, he’ll score. So, right now, he’s in great shape, has good confidence, and hopefully he has his best game tomorrow – that’s what I hope.”

2. Cutter Gauthier, C, USA (Philadelphia Flyers)

The tournament point leader heading into the semifinal Thursday was somehow snakebitten. Cutter Gauthier had 11 points in five games ahead of the match against Finland, but just one goal. And that stood as a meaningless tally in a 10-2 romp of the Slovaks during round-robin play. This, despite putting 22 shots on goal and having copious amounts of high-danger chances.

But as they say, timing is everything.

With his team down 2-0 early, the Americans refused to roll over. “We had no doubt going into the second period being down," Gauthier said. “We played our game, stuck to the basics, and trusted the pre-scouts.”

The basics, in the end, was a power play tally courtesy of Gauthier who received the puck at the top of the circle, curled around, timed the screen with Rutger McGroarty and deposited the puck into the top corner of the net. That 3-2 tally stood as the game-winner and helped land the Flyers’ prospect Player of the Game honours.

McGroarty was beaming when asked about Gauthier post-game. “I’ve been Cuts' best friend for the past four or five years. I’m not trying to be cheesy here… but I’m so proud of him. He’s the first guy in the rink, the last guy to leave. He’s always in the shooting room. Always lifting weights. He’s always doing everything, every single day… he puts so much work in. It’s very well deserved."

Player of the Game honours wasn’t the only hardware Gauthier left this game with. He was also named one of the Top Three Players on Team USA and has the tournament lead with 12 points through six contests. He’s set himself up for an MVP award if he and his mates can come away with the title tomorrow against Sweden. A team they know well from past international experiences and are chomping at the bit to get some revenge.

“They stripped the gold medals from our necks (at the U18 Worlds)," Gauthier said. "We’re going to give them everything we’ve got.”

3. Noah Östlund, C, Sweden (Buffalo Sabres)

This may come as a surprise to some, but it's Östlund who entered the day leading all Swedish forwards in cumulative 5-on-5 gamescore, as recorded by my colleagues Mitch Brown and Lassi Alanen. He's, somewhat quietly, been a force for Sweden to this point in the tournament.

Today, he finally got to have a signature moment, scoring the goal that Czech head coach Patrik Augusta credited as the one that sealed their fate in this hockey game. Here's how Östlund described that play.

“Yeah, it was pretty much… I saw the goalkeeper was pretty far out, so I tried to go around him and get the backhand up.”

Tried, and succeeded. And if that weren't enough, Östlund picked up the primary helper on Lekkerimäki's 5-2 goal with little under seven minutes left in regulation. All while playing against the opposition's best.

“Pretty much, right now, we just want to close out this game and move on to tomorrow,” Östlund said of the emotions after putting in such a strong performance. It means a lot to him that he gets one last chance at gold, especially since he gets to do it with Lekkerimäki and Liam Öhgren. The three once formed the vaunted “Djurgårdens trio," which helped Sweden capture gold in Landshut at the 2022 U18s, and the opportunity to repeat isn't lost on him.

“Yeah, it means a lot,” Östlund said. “This is maybe the last thing we do together, and we grew up playing together. This is huge.”

Some love for Michael Brandsegg-Nygård

Michael Brandsegg-Nygård scored two goals and an assist in the round-robin match against Slovakia and was named Player of the Game for Norway. But perhaps his best outing came in the relegation match against Germany.

The 18-year-old winger started out a bit tentative in the opening period but came on as the game wore on. He grabbed a primary assist in the first period by spinning and firing a puck toward the net. It went wide and caught the outside of the net. Noah Steen collected it behind the net and wrapped it around the far post to even the game up 1-1.

That seemed to spur the 2024 top prospect as he had more jump and physicality baked into his game from that moment on.

With his team down two goals with under six minutes left to play, he one-timed a cross-ice feed on the man-advantage to bring them within one. His club would tie things up moments later and force overtime. Norwary would eventually succumb in in the extra frame after Brandsegg-Nygård failed to capitilize on a bang-bang play moments earlier.

In the end, he was named Player of the Game and one of the top three players on his team. He left the scouts with a final positive viewing. However, speaking with some team-side people, not everyone was thrilled with his effort or overall performance. “I expected more from him. (He) didn’t lead despite being the most skilled guy for Norway.” One NHL scout was quoted saying.

The Highlight of the Day

I kind of feel for Jimmy Snuggerud. You never want to see a player lose their job to injury, or worse still, illness in this case, but that's kind of what happened. A flu bug ran through the Frölundaborg and seemed to impact at least one player on most of the teams in Group B, and when it hit Snuggerud, it gave Oliver Moore a chance on the top line. They took off, and Snuggerud's been the odd man out since. That must've made scoring this goal with his trademark howitzer all the better though!

You may also be interested in:
Film Room: How Jonathan Lekkerimäki got back on track after a disappointing draft-plus-one season
Film Room: How Jonathan Lekkerimäki got back on track after a disappointing draft-plus-one season
This article is about:
World Juniors 2024 Czechia U20 Finland U20 Germany U20 Norway U20 Sweden U20 USA U20 Vancouver Canucks WJC-20 Cutter Gauthier Jonathan Lekkerimäki Jimmy Snuggerud Noah Östlund
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