Scout’s Analysis: What to make of Team USA, Sweden ahead of WJC final

Sweden's Jonathan Lekkerimaki (23) celebrates his second goal over Czechia with teammates Otto Stenberg (25), Noah Ostlund (12), Tom Willander (24) and Theo Lindstein (9) during third period semifinal hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, Thursday Jan. 4, 2024. (Christinne Muschi/CP)

GOTHENBURG, Sweden — Thursday afternoon in Gothenburg got off to a festive start as Team Sweden defeated Team Czechia in the first semifinal. The Swedes wore down Czechia and eventually scored three quick goals in the third period to put the game out of reach. 

Semifinal No. 2 saw Team Finland race out to a surprising 2-0 lead over the heavily favoured Team USA. By virtue of winning the first period, Team Finland found a way to hang around until the closing minutes, eventually falling to Team USA 3-2. 

Here are some observations from both semifinal games:

Sweden 5, Czechia 2

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Czechia was in the game for two periods against Sweden, until the Swedes depth took over in the third. Sweden has the ability to roll four lines and spread out responsibilities amongst their group. 

Players like Buffalo Sabres first round pick Noah Ostlund (16th in 2022), Vancouver Canucks first rounder Jonathan Lekkerimaki (15th in 2022) and another Blues first round selection Otto Stenberg (25th in 2023) handle the heavy lifting offensively. 

Defensive specialists include Canucks draft pick Elias Pettersson (80th in 2022), who has been matched up against top forwards the entire tournament, and power forwards Liam Ohgren (Minnesota Wild) and Filip Bystedt. 

Arguably the most complete player on the entire Swedish roster — maybe the entire tournament — is defenceman Theo Lindstein, another St. Louis Blues prospect (29th in 2023). Lindstein logs around 22:00 TOI per game. He can be trusted in any situation. He matches up against top lines, penalty kills and produces offence. Lindstein leads the tournament in defenceman scoring with two goals, six assists. More impressive is his plus-11 rating through six games. 

• The score was 2-2 heading into the third. Five minutes into the final frame, Team Sweden was awarded a power play and Jonathan Lekkerimaki took advantage by ripping a weak side one-timer that beat Czechia goaltender Michael Hrabal clean to his stick side. The Canucks have to be excited about envisioning Lekkerimaki on one flank and Elias Pettersson on the other, blasting pucks on their power play. 

• Lekkerimaki leads the tournament with six goals. He also leads the event with four power play goals. 

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• Noah Ostlund has had an excellent tournament for Team Sweden. He’s produced three goals, six assists. Ostlund scored Sweden’s fourth goal on a breakaway in the third period. Ostlund is a highly skilled, motion forward, who’s a threat off the rush and makes plays in small areas. He’s an excellent skater who is very difficult to defend. 

• Generally speaking, NHL teams shy away from undersized goalie prospects. But the name of the game is stopping the puck and Sweden goalie Hugo Havelid has been thriving on the international stage. 

At last year’s U18 world championships, Havelid posted 2.41 GAA and .929 save percentage. 

He’s upped his statistics at the WJC. Havelid has a .952 percentage and 0.98 GAA. 

Havelid stands 5’10 and 170lbs. It’s the only reason he hasn’t been drafted as teams are clearly shy about his stature. 

If he wins gold on Friday, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear his name called at the 2024 NHL Draft in Vegas. 

USA 3, Finland 2

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Team USA didn’t start on time versus Finland and it almost cost them an appearance in the gold medal game. The Americans looked unorganized in the first 10 minutes and the Finns made them pay by taking a 2-0 lead on goals by Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oiva Keskinen (194th in 2023) and Minnesota Wild draft pick (53rd in 2023) Rasmus Kumpulainen. 

The Americans looked like a completely different outfit when the puck dropped to start the second period. The ice was tilted in their favour. Their speed and skill took over. They answered the Finns’ opening period with two goals of their own. 

Another St. Louis Blues prospect (!), Jimmy Snuggerud (23rd in 2022) got Team USA on the board when he one-timed a puck on the power play. Forward Will Smith (fourth-overall for San Jose in 2023) followed, setting the stage for the third period. 

Philadelphia Flyers prospect Cutter Gauthier (fifth-overall in 2022) ended up scoring the game-winning goal on the power play in the third period. 

• It’s never a bad thing to absorb a scare on the way to the gold medal game, as long as the group perseveres and ends up on the right side of the scoreboard. I expect Team USA to start the game, versus Sweden the same way they started the second period against the Finns. 

• Montreal Canadiens prospect Lane Hutson (62nd in 2022) has some Quinn Hughes in his game. He isn’t as dynamic as Hughes, but he could end up being “Hughes Light” at the NHL level. It’s incredible how two defenceman, who are undersized, graduated from the USNTDP with the similarities they have. 

• American goaltender Trey Augustine kept his team in the game in the opening 20 minutes versus Finland. The Detroit Red Wings prospect (41st in 2023) didn’t face a high volume of shots, but the quality of the scoring chances he faced came from high danger areas. 

• I’m assuming Augustine gets the start on Friday versus Sweden. He comes into the game with a fantastic 1.67 GAA and .941 save percentage.

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