The wait is finally over, and it was definitely worth it. The 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship kicked off on Friday in Calgary as the Czech Republic earned a convincing 6-1 win over newly promoted Denmark.
Longtime captain Alena Mills set the pace with three goals and an assist for the Czechs, who converted three times on the power play. Pavlina Horalkova had four assists.
"It was great to get started," said Mills. "We've been waiting for this for a year. You could even say two! So we were really excited to finally get on the ice and play a game and get a big win."
Josefine Persson had the lone goal for the Danes, competing in the top division for the first time since 1992.
"It's a tough game, but now we're excited to move on," said Danish captain Josefine Jakobsen. "We can learn some things from this game."
Star Czech goalie Klara Peslarova was sharp when necessary, but Denmark’s Lisa Jensen faced way more rubber in her Women’s Worlds debut. Final shots favoured the Czechs 34-9.
Under new head coach Tomas Pacina, the Czechs are looking to improve on their sixth-place finish from 2019 (Espoo), which equalled their high from 2016 (Kamloops). They topped Group B in 2019, posting four straight wins before a 3-1 quarter-final loss to the host Finns. Pacina knows the host city well as the 2018 CWHL coach of the year with the Calgary Inferno.
"It's bittersweet, to be honest with you," Pacina said. "This has been my home for 27 years. I have a Czech and Canadian passport. I live here in Calgary and my son lives here. So I'm super-happy to be here in the rink where I spent every day of my life the last 10 years. Not to be able to see my son or my friends is very, very bitter. Not very happy about that. Just respect the rules, though. It's just the way it is at the moment."
With Denmark, head coach Peter Elander made his first appearance behind the bench at an elite IIHF women’s tournament in more than 10 years. The 61-year-old Swede, best-known for leading Sweden to a shocking silver medal at the 2006 Olympics, last appeared behind the Damkronorna’s bench at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Ten women on this Danish roster are affiliated with Swedish clubs.
"In the first two periods, we battled a lot," said Elander. "In the last period, I think we ran out of gasoline. We have to move our feet a little better and compete harder on the stick battles. I think we were outbattled on the stick battles."
Just 19 seconds after Jakobsen was sent off for hooking, Mills opened the scoring at 6:05 with a partially screened power-play wrister from the center point.
Despite some aggressive Danish forechecking, the Czechs kept coming. Katerina Mrazova, the 2021 SDHL MVP with Brynas IF, sifted cleverly through the slot and pivoted to find Dominika Laskova on the back door for a high glove-side goal at 13:00.
Laskova praised Mrazova: "She's a good player, so I love to play with her. We've played together for the last year. We know each other well on the ice and we are also very good friends."
Mrazova was sent off for hooking and the Danes cut the deficit to 2-1 at 14:41 with their 5-on-4 advantage. Josefine Persson planted herself in front of Peslarova’s crease, and when Jakobsen blasted a long shot off the end boards, Persson was ready to backhand the puck in the open side.
The upstart Danes nearly tied it when Julie Ostergaard, busting to the net, put a centering pass off Peslarova’s left post. But that was as close as they'd get. Vendula Pribylova restored the two-goal Czech lead with another power play goal, tipping Horalkova’s pass high past the Danish netminder at 17:33.
Of the power play success, Mills said: "We've been playing together for a long time, our four lines, I think it helps us understand or know where the other person's going."
In the second period, the Danes flirted with danger with a whopping four back-to-back tripping penalties, three to blueliner Malene Frandsen. The Czechs controlled the play and outshot Denmark 10-1 in the frame.
Just 22 seconds into the third period, Mills, who is competing in her fifth elite Women's Worlds and 13th IIHF tournament in total with the senior team, put the game out of reach with another power-play goal from long range. This one tipped off a skate and fooled Lisa Jensen.
"For me it was just a regular performance by Alena," said Pacina. "You tell the players to shoot from the blue line and she's gonna shoot from the blue line. She continues to fulfill the playbook to absolute perfection. It speaks about her character and about the person she is. So for me, not a step up, just another day at the Alena Mills office."
"I wish I had the same shot as her!" Laskova said with a laugh.
The Danes were visibly beginning to wear down a bit when Kristyna Patkova snared a loose puck in the slot and beat Jensen five-hole for a 5-1 edge at 4:00. Mills completed her hat trick with a high laser that dinged in off the post at 17:16.
"We need to stress down a little and skate a little bit more," said Persson. "It was, I think, a little bit rocky out there."
The game took place at Calgary's WinSport Arena without spectators in the stands due to the pandemic bubble format conditions.
Denmark earned its promotion with a second-place finish behind host Hungary at the 2019 Division I Group A tournament in Budapest. Of course, Denmark’s return was long-delayed by the cancellation of the 2020 Women’s Worlds in Nova Scotia and the postponement and relocation of this year’s tournament to Calgary.
The Czechs and Danes split a pair of exhibition games in Copenhagen in April. Denmark won the first game 3-0, but the Czechs bounced back the following day with a 5-1 win.
This was Denmark’s first game in the top division of the Women’s Worlds in more than 29 years. Last time out, Jannie Hadsen’s shootout goal lifted the Danes to a 4-3 shootout win over Switzerland for seventh place on 26 April, 1992 in Tampere, Finland. That was the only previous time Denmark has played at this level. The Women's Worlds debuted in Ottawa in 1990.
Looking ahead, Jakobsen said Elander's message to his Danish players was simple: "Play with a smile. Everyone on this team knows how to play hockey. It's a little higher pace than we're used to. But as long as we're having fun, we've got to try and have a smile and do our best."
The Danes are right back in action against Japan on Saturday, while the Czech Republic’s next game is against Hungary – making its Women’s Worlds debut – on Sunday.