After the success in the 2010 worlds and even the World Juniors pushing some of the middle tier nations to overtime in 2011, the following years had become less spectacular for Denmark. In the Worlds, Denmark had underperformed and to make it worse they spend the 2014 Olympics on the couch, rather than taking part, due to a failed qualifier. The momentum and chance for the best decade that the 2010 Worlds hinted at seemed lost. The saving grace the past 2 year had been the rise in NHLers and especially the rise of Frederik Andersen. However, with the qualification to the World juniors the next 2 years not only regained the momentum but took Denmark to new highs. To find the previous parts of the series click here.
The 2014-2015 World Juniors Sensation
While Denmark previously had managed to reach the World Juniors, Denmark never had managed to win a game. However, in 2014, the team had a bit more firepower than the past teams, staring a strong top line of Nikolaj Ehlers, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Mads Eller. The depth looked better than normal and in net George Sørensen had looked sharp going into the tournament. This was the best chance to win a game in the top tier of junior hockey.
A dream that was close to becoming a reality in Denmark’s opening game, as Denmark faced off against Russia. A true goliath of hockey and a game that was meant to be an easy win for the Russians. But when the game started it was with the Danes in the driver’s seat. The took the fight to the Russians and got an early powerplay. A powerplay where Denmark’s top players could show their talent in full. First when Bjorkstrand sent a bullet of a shot past Ilya Sorokin to take the lead and a few minutes later Ehlers made it 2-0 from the blueline on yet another powerplay. Russia was shell-shocked. The intermission did wake up the Russians and they got control and tied the game early in the third period. In the shootout, Russia scored twice as Ehlers and Bjorkstand missed, and the Russians narrowly escaped with the victory.
Despite the lost Denmark had made a statement to everyone in the Air Canada Center. They were not just here to make up the numbers. They were here to compete with everyone and fight harder than anyone else. A statement that was backed up when they yet again scored a point in the tournament. This time against team Czech Republic. Once again Denmark was leading going into the third period, but with 3 minutes left Dominik Kubalík tied the game, and in overtime David Pastrňák scored to give the Czech the win.
The loss meant Denmark had to win against Switzerland if they wanted to avoid the relegation rounds. It was a game where Denmark had to fight back from a horrifying start when Kevin Fiala made it 2-0 midway thought the first period. However, the Danish powerplay was red hot throughout the tournament and against the Swiss it once again was clicking. 2 powerplay goals from the Danes got them back on even terms and after regulation the score was 3-3. Yet another overtime, but none had ever been bigger.
The swiss dominated the overtime period, but George Sørensen made some ten bell saves to force the game into a shootout. A shootout where history was made as the 3 stars of team Denmark shined the brightest. First when Ehlers and Bjorkstrand scored, and in the end when Sørensen made the final save on Noah Rod. A save that was followed by celebration. Both from the players, but also from the many Canadian fans in the ACC.
Canadian Love And Meeting Against Conner McDavid
During the shootout one thing stood out to those watching. Almost everyone attending was cheering for Denmark to win. The Danish player had captured the hearts of the biggest hockey nation on the planet. How had they done it? Some might say that its quite normal as they were the underdog, and everyone loves a good underdog story. However, there was something else to they way they were cheering for the Danes. It was a different passion than normal.
When fans cheer for the underdog, you don’t often hear them boo the opponents heavily or hug each other in celebration. But that was exactly what happened against the Swiss when Noah Rod missed his shot. The Canadian fans wanted Denmark to win, because of the way they played. The fast approach and hard-working style made Denmark the talk of the town of Toronto as Canada played its games in Montreal for the group stage. Denmark was the Canadians second team of the World juniors.
Triumph In Defeat
It seemed almost like faith that when Denmark finally qualified, and the opponent was found, that it would be against Canada. After playing 4 games in the ACC, where Denmark played at homelike conditions, it suddenly was reversed. In the quarterfinals they were to play in front of 18.000 Canadian hockey fanatics against team Canada with Connor McDavid leading the charge. The game itself went as expected. Canada won 8-0 and dominated the game. The journey was over but the foundation and groundwork for the future had been put in place. Denmark had shown the world stage, that they could play with some of the best hockey nations in the world and captured the hearts of the biggest hockey nation in the world.
Nikolaj Ehlers: The Generational Talent
Today Nikolaj Ehlers is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, and in Denmark often viewed as the best Danish hockey player. Even at a young age people noticed that Ehlers was a spectacular talent, getting games in the strong Swiss league at the age of 16. However, it wasn’t until he got to the QMJHL as a member of the Halifax Mooseheads he truly showed his skill. In his first season he posted a 104-point season. This meant that in the 2014 draft, Ehlers was someone everyone was expecting within the top 15. Some even had him to be taken in the top 10. This meant that Ehlers had a solid chance to becoming the highest drafted Dane ever. A record set by Mikkel Bødker in 2008, when the Phoenix Coyotes took him at 8th overall.
Bødker’s record still stands today, as Ehlers was taken at ninth by the Winnipeg Jets. After another great season with Halifax, he finally got a spot on the Jets roster in 2015. In his rookie year he did alright with 15 goals and 38 points in total. Not a bad start for the Dane. However, the following season he was paired with Patrick Laine, and here Ehlers truly shined. 64 points and 25 goals scored, which was both Danish records at the time. The Laine and Ehlers combination was working well, as it seemed like Ehlers skill and speed, gave the finish sniper the space needed to rip shots past netminders.
The only thing missing now for Ehlers was the playoff. Something that had been eluding the Jets in both of his first two seasons. In Ehlers third season with the Jets, they finally made off the back of Connor Hellebuyck and a superb offense led by Blake Wheeler. Here the Wild was swiftly dealt with and so were the Preds. Against Vegas however it was all over. The jets were defeated in 5 games to the newest NHL team. Within the playoff Ehlers hadn’t scored but he had registered 7 assists.
The following season the Jets again made the playoff but was shockingly eliminated in just 6 games to the St. Louis Blues. Once again Ehlers hadn’t scored. This became a major talking point in the offseason where trade talks around Ehlers seemed never-ending. He was becoming a playoff choker who would be better off away from Winnipeg since they were getting into a massive capcrunch with Laine and Kyle Conner needing a payday. A lot of teams were mentioned but when this season started, Ehlers was still found in Winnipeg. A place where he was on pace to beating the Danish record for goals and points in the regular season. His own Danish records.
Oliver Bjorkstrand: Denmark’s Ovechkin
The second star of the Danish junior roster in 2014-2015 was Oliver Bjorkstrand, and some might argue he was more important to Denmark than Ehlers was. Where Ehlers brings flair and skill, Bjorkstrand brings an NHL caliber shot, that’s rivaled by few. After Bjorkstrand was drafted by the Blue Jackets in 2013, he spent a few seasons in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks. Here he posted multiple +100 points seasons which as enough to give him a look with the Blue Jackets.
In his first time in Columbus, it was clear how talented he was, but he never really got going. It was in the AHL he made his name. With the Lake Eire monster Bjorkstand was a key part of their 2016 Calder cup playoff run. He was constantly coming up with big goals. None however was bigger than his goal in game 4 of the Calder cup finals. In overtime with the second 0-0 with only a handful of seconds left, Oliver Bjorkstrand found a loss puck, and with a quick shot found the back of the net to send the cup to Cleveland. Surely this meant he was heading for the NHL the following season.
A Lacking NHL Start
Well that should have been the narrative, but Oliver Bjorkstrand struggled mightily to crack the NHL roster. It was only at the end of the season he finally cemented his spot in the NHL. Since then he been adding to his game each season, becoming more and more of the sniper people in Denmark expected him to be. This season he finally got a bigger role on the Jackets roster and with deadly shot he was on pace to break his season best by a country mile. However, an ankle injury ended his season after 49 games. In these games he did manage to score 21 goals and 36 points. Numbers that are fitting for the Danish Alexander Ovechkin.
The 2016 Juniors: The Impressive Sequal
The 2015 juniors was significant for Danish hockey in a lot of ways, but none quite as much as the fact the last game was the first to be live broadcasted on national television in 25 years. People who had been sleeping on junior hockey, now saw the team and excitement of a World Juniors and when the 2016 games happened, all Denmark’s games was to be shown on TV. This turned out to be a good choice, as Denmark once again delivered on one of the biggest stages in hockey. Without the 3 stars from last year, the team had to work even harder and in their first game the Danes won yet another key game against Switzerland.
After an early goal to the Swiss by Noah Rod, Denmark found their gear. With superb goaltending by Thomas Lillie, the danes found the two goals they needed in the 3rd period to win 2-1. The rest of the group resulted in 3 losses, but the win clinched yet another spot in quarterfinal. This time it was against Russia.
The Missing Upset
After the first period things were going somewhat according to the script. Russia was leading, despite Denmark having a few more chances then expected. Something that could be put down to a lack of energy or underestimation, so surely Russia would run riot in the second period. This was the mindset eveyone had and expected to happen. What actually happend was quite the opposite. Second period goals from Markus Jensen and Thomas Olsen stunned the Russians, who was one period away from elimination.
In the third Lillie stood tall against a massive Russian bombardment. It was rare Denmark was in the offensive zone and they were being peppered, so when Russia 7 minutes left tied it, things once again seemed a formality for Russia. However, the heart of the Danish team was unprecedented. Without big star names they had to dig deeper than any other team to win. With 5 minutes left, Denmark retook the lead when Emil Christensen scored on a rebound. Denmark once again had Russia on the ropes.
46.8 Seconds Away
The clock ticked away far too slowly for the Danes. Russia was panicking and fired the puck on net from all angles. They tried everything but Lillie turned it aside. Suddenly, they had to pull the goalie and less than a minute away from elimination. An offensive faceoff and the last roll of the dice for Russia. A roll that turned out to be successful as a loss puck was found by Vladislav Kamenev who put it on the net. The puck just squeezed by Lillie in the net with 46.8 seconds left. That was how close Denmark came to deliver the biggest upset in hockey since the Miracle on Ice. Alas it wasn’t to be for the Danes and overtime, Kamenev scored the game winner.
Heartbreaking for the Danes, but a testament to how far Danish hockey had come. From its first outing in the Worlds in 2003, to Frans Nielsen’s NHL debut, to the game against Slovakia in the 2010 Worlda. All had paved the way for a future where Danish hockey could flourish and face off against the best and push them to the limit. However, none had thought it would only take 5 more years to reach that point. The question was what the next 5 years of the decade would bring for Danish hockey? In next week’s edition I will try to answer that.
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