Ehlers is the only active NHLer with Denmark in Tampere and his contribution is highly regarded by Mikkel Boedker, one of the Danes' most experienced players.
"Nikolaj being hot means that we have a chance to win every night," Boedker said. "He dusts a little stardust on this tournament. For us, he comes in and scores two right off the bat and has chances for a third. I think that shows you everything you need to know about what kind of player he is and what he means to our team."
For the Hungarians, back in the top division for the first time since 2016, a lack of firepower proved costly at equal strength. Coupled with a steady string of penalties, it turned into a tough opener for the newly promoted team. On the plus side, Kevin Constantine’s team was not blown away as it looks to consolidate on last season’s Division IA silver.
"The effort was there," said forward Peter Vincze. "In the first period, we started slowly. But then in the end, I felt like we're gonna come back. All in all, the special teams made the difference. They scored two on their PP and we couldn't put one home on our PP."
After that long wait for top division action, Hungary tried to force the early tempo. However, apart from an early shooting chance for Kristof Papp, there was little justify the vocal Magyar travelling contingent’s hopes that a breakthrough might be on the way. Papp’s effort represented fully 50% of the saves Frederik Dichow had to make in the first as Denmark turned the screws.
At the other end, Bence Balizs put up a highlight reel save to rob Nick Olesen at the back door. Mathias Bau came down the left and gave Olesen what seemed to be an empty net look, only for Balizs to thrust out a glove and deny the opportunity.
Shortly afterwards, Patrick Russell redirected a Markus Lauridsen effort just wide despite a hook from Istvan Bartalis. That brought Denmark’s second power play of the game, and ultimately the opening goal. Jesper Jensen Aabo’s shot had the penalty kill at full stretch in front of Balizs’ net, and Nicklas Jensen seized upon the loose puck to find Ehlers wide open for a one-timer inside the near post.
"I think we played well for most of the game, but we made it a little bit harder than we would have liked," admitted Danish defender Oliver Lauridsen. "Maybe we need to be a little more effective on the chances we get, so we can close out the game earlier."
Boedker agreed: "We had plenty of scoring chances. I think that's the lesson to take with us - we need to score on those chances."
Restricted to just two shots in the first period, Hungary needed to generate far more offence in the second. There were good chances to do so on the power play, and Vilmos Gallo almost forced a tying goal when he crashed the net. The initial chance was cleared, but when Istvan Sofron spun and whipped the puck back to the danger zone the prone Hungarian forward almost managed to deflect it into the net off his skate.
Unfortunately for the Magyars, the next penalty went to their team – and once again Ehlers delivered on the Danish power play. This time it was a wrister from the edge of the right-hand circle with Russell providing the screen.
For Lauridsen, the Danish special teams were key to Saturday's win - and potentially this year's tournament. "We’re going to play a lot of tight games here at the beginning of the tournament and tight games are usually decided on the special teams," the defender said. "We shut it down on the PK and scored a couple on the PP tonight, so that’s great for us."
Two goals felt like a long road back for Hungary, but the World Championship newcomers redoubled their efforts. Sofron found the side-netting, but Krisztian Nagy’s breakaway attempt proved too enthusiastic and saw him penalized for interference on Dichow. The subsequent power play saw Balizs produce a double save to deny Bau and Mikkel Boedker to keep Hungary in the game.
Early in the third, the lively Sofron inspired the loudest roar of the game when he got free at the back door and gleefully clubbed home a cross-ice feed from Bence Szabo. That revived Hungarian hopes and got the sizeable group of red-clad fans in the corner beside Dichow’s net on their feet to roar their heroes in search of a tying goal. In the wave of Hungarian pressure that followed, Janos Hari went close to levelling the scores. Hungary believed.
"Our goalie was awesome tonight and he kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win," added Vincze. "He really gave us a chance right until the end."
But those cheers turned to groans when Morten Poulsen produced a clinical finish from a Danish breakaway to restore his team's two-goal advantage with eight minutes to play. And despite one more Hungarian power play in those closing minutes, the Danes closed out the win.