WJC Three Stars Day 8: Sweden’s Lekkerimaki stays hot, scores twice in semifinal

Sweden's Jonathan Lekkerimaki (23) celebrates his game winning goal over Czechia with teammates during third period semifinal hockey action at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden, Thursday Jan. 4, 2024. (Christinne Muschi/CP)

Following the eighth day of play at the World Junior Championship, the two medal games are now set.

As a result of their semifinal wins on Thursday, host Sweden and the United States will face off Friday for the gold medal, while Czechia and Finland will battle for the bronze medal. Thursday’s action also saw Germany survive to stay at the top level of this tournament for another year, resulting in relegation for Norway. 

The bout between Germany and Norway started off Day 8. A back-and-forth affair saw Norway come back every time they were down against Germany before the showdown was ultimately settled in overtime. Elias Moritz scored the winner 58 seconds into overtime, securing a 5-4 victory for the Germans and ensuring their place at the 2025 World Juniors in Ottawa. After being promoted to the top level for the first time in a decade, Norway finishes 10th this year, and will be relegated back to the tournament below this one (U20 World Championship, Division 1A). Kazakhstan, the champions of that tournament this year, will take Norway’s spot in 2025.

After the relegation contest, we moved onto the games with medal implications. First up, the highlight for the home crowd, was Sweden’s 5-2 victory over Czechia that featured a three-goal third period for the home team.  After defeating Canada in the quarterfinals, Czechia was aiming to advance to the gold-medal game for the second year in a row. Instead, it is Sweden playing for gold for the first time since 2018 and Czechia will have to shift their goal to earning a medal for the second year in a row. The win was a tidy bit of revenge for the Swedish squad, after being defeated by Czechia in the semifinals in 2023. 

Friday’s games were then officially set with the result of the day’s last matchup between USA and Finland. Having been up by two at the conclusion of the first period, the Finns saw their lead disappear as the Americans scored twice over the following 20 minutes. The game remained deadlocked until the Americans struck with a power-play goal with a little over three minutes remaining. Holding on for the 3-2 win – even with Finland getting a two-man advantage with a power play and the goalie pulled – USA now meets Sweden in the tournament finale for the first time in 11 years.

Here is a look at the most memorable performances from the second-last day of the World Juniors. 

3rd Star: Cutter Gauthier, USA

The late power-play goal that sent USA to the gold-medal game belonged to Gauthier. Despite it being just his second goal of the tournament, the 19-year-old forward is leading the World Juniors in scoring with 12 points. Receiving a pass from Lane Hutson, Gauthier sent the puck top shelf with 13 seconds remaining on the power play, cementing a come-from-behind win for the Americans. 

For his performance on Thursday, Gauthier was unsurprisingly named USA’s player of the game and also named one of their top three players for the tournament, alongside Hutson and Gavin Brindley.

Gauthier, who was actually born in Sweden, was drafted fifth overall in 2022 by the Philadelphia Flyers. Currently in the midst of his second season at Boston College, Gauthier has 23 points (13 goals and 10 assists) over 17 NCAA games. 

2nd Star: Niklas Kokko, Finland

Coming into Thursday’s game, the United States had not scored fewer than four goals in any of their previous five contests. That changed when they went up against Finland’s netminder, the 19-year-old Kokko. 

Making 27 saves on 30 shots on goal, Kokko allowed the Americans to strike just three times – two of those goals coming while Finland was on the penalty kill. With the support of the Finns’ defensive efforts, Kokko kept USA scoreless for most of the third period and ultimately finished the game with a .900 save percentage. Earning the title of player of the game for Finland, he made several massive saves across 60 minutes, a notable instance being the early chance from Brindley, USA’s goal leader.

The 19-year-old was selected 58th overall by the Seattle Kraken in the 2022 draft and signed his three-year, entry-level deal with the team in May 2023. Making four appearances over Finland’s six games, Kokko has made 104 saves on 117 shots for a 3.31 goals-against average and .889 save percentage. For the 2023-24 season, he is playing for the Liiga’s Kärpät. 

1st Star: Jonathan Lekkerimaki, Sweden

Given that this is the third time we have spotlighted Lekkerimaki with a star over the duration of this tournament, it is more than safe to say he has had a consistently solid showing this year. 

With two third-period goals in Thursday’s contest, including one that would stand as the winner, Lekkerimaki played a significant role in helping his team advance to the gold-medal game. 

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With the game tied at 2-2, Sweden was awarded a power play after Czechia’s Ales Cech was called for cross-checking. A quick battle along the boards saw the puck sent out to Axel Sandin Pellikka, who sent it across to Lekkerimaki. From the point, the 19-year-old Vancouver Canucks prospect sent a slap shot towards the Czech net, beating Michael Hrabal just 16 seconds into the man advantage. 

His second goal, which ended up being the final one of the game, increased Sweden’s lead, putting the hosts up by three with less than seven minutes to go. Just over a minute after Noah Ostlund scored himself, he sent a pass over to teammate Lekkerimaki, who got off a close-range shot to beat Hrabal once again. 

Tallying nine shots in each of Sweden’s last two games, the goals are almost bound to come when you have a proclivity for shooting like Lekkerimaki. Over six games, the winger leads the tournament in shots (30) and power-play goals (four), shares the top spot in overall goals (six), and is tied with four other players for the second-highest point total (nine). Not only did he receive player of the game honours on Thursday, he was also named one of Sweden’s top three players of the tournament.

Honourable mentions: Veit Oswald and Phillip Sinn, Germany 

In Germany’s win over Norway, both teammates made impactful contributions with a goal and two assists each. They collaborated on Elias’ overtime winner as well, recording the primary and secondary assists, respectively. 

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