“Start of something big” for Danes?
by Lucas AYKROYD|16 MAY 2023
Danish players like Matias Lassen (#15) aspire to make the medal round at the 2023 Worlds after earning eight points in their first three games in Tampere.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andrea Cardin
When Denmark returned to the IIHF World Championship in 2003 in Tampere, few believed the Scandinavians would enjoy an uninterrupted run in the top division that would see them return to the same city 20 years later.

Now the Danes have done something else special. Coach Heinz Ehlers’ crew opened the 2023 Worlds with three straight victories for the first time in Danish hockey history: 3-1 over Hungary, 4-3 over France in overtime, and 6-2 over Austria.

How do you say, “Smells like quarter-finals,” in Danish?

“These are the three games where we needed to get points,” said captain Jesper Jensen Aabo.

“There’s no easy games, which is what makes it exciting,” said Nikolaj Ehlers, the Winnipeg Jets star who is making his father and his country proud with a tournament-high four goals so far. “So being able to say we got eight points after three games, that’s pretty good.”

Of course, you have to be realistic. The early Danish opponents haven’t been perennial medal contenders. Denmark’s schedule gets much tougher with its remaining Group A games against Germany, the U.S., Sweden, and Finland.

By comparison, the first time the Danes made the quarter-finals in 2010 in Germany, they stunned Finland 4-1 and then edged the U.S. 2-1 in overtime in their first two games. Those wins deservedly garnered more attention.

Still, over the years, the Danes have had the bad habit of earning a big win and then laying an egg instead of building on their early success. Granted, this year, they squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-2 versus France and only got two points instead of three. Still, what they’ve accomplished is already an improvement over the first two Worlds of this decade.

In 2021, Denmark created a sensation by beating Sweden for the first time ever, 4-3 on Day One in Riga, paced by Nicklas Jensen’s hat trick. But that historic moment was followed by a lacklustre 1-0 loss to Switzerland in which the Danes were outshot 30-4. It set a new IIHF record for the fewest shots on goal by one team. Denmark wound up in twelfth place.

The Danish offence started off on fire with a 9-1 rout of Kazakhstan in Helsinki in 2022. Joachim Blichfeld dazzled with three goals. But in the next game, Switzerland lit up goalie Frederik Dichow for five goals in a 6-0 victory. Ninth place was as far as the Danes got.

Right now, they’re eager to see how far they can ride their red-hot power play (a Worlds-leading six goals and a 46.15 conversion rate) and a highly motivated Dichow’s goaltending (1.98 GAA).

Despite Denmark’s unbeaten record, Ehlers sees plenty of room for improvement. And the model to follow is the way the team executed in the third period against Austria, where they outscored their opponents 4-1.

“We were better in our D-zone,” Ehlers noted. “We were able to pass the puck and get the pucks out and get them deep and then work their defencemen. When you put two or three passes together, then you're able to get the puck out of your own zone and get it going the other way. And we didn’t do that the first two periods. It was bad passes, and nobody was open for each other or yelling for the puck or anything. So that's something that we've got to be ready to do from the beginning next game.”

A now-healthy Ehlers (4+2=6) might be playing the best hockey he’s played all year, apart from a six-game NHL point streak in January where he racked up 10 points. Yet the 27-year-old speedster is far from a solo act. Five other veteran Danish leaders have three or more points so far, including the likes of Jensen Aabo (1+2=3), Nicklas Jensen (1+3=4), and Patrick Russell (2+1=3).

And recent Danish NHL success just adds to the good hockey vibes around this nation of 5.8 million. It’s contagious.

This year, Oliver Bjorkstrand scored twice, including the winner, for the Seattle Kraken in Game Seven of the first round to eliminate the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. Goalie Frederik Andersen has posted world-class numbers in net to help the Carolina Hurricanes reach the Eastern Conference final.

It took until 2018 for Lars Eller to become the first Dane to score a Stanley Cup-winning goal, but he surely won’t be the last.

“Denmark has been going in the right direction for some years now, which is pretty exciting,” Ehlers said.

In Tampere, curiosity is growing around the red-and-white squad. The Danes’ last quarter-final appearance was in 2016, and as in 2010, they finished eighth. Could they match or beat that this year?

It’ll be hard but not inconceivable to get a few more points out of their remaining four Group A games, starting with winless Germany. Getting somewhere between 10 and 13 points is usually sufficient to make the medal round – if all the Lego bricks fall into place.

“It's perfect,” said Niklas Andersen, whose three-point outing set the pace against Austria. “We put ourselves in a super position here.”

“In the next game [on Thursday], we have a chance to beat Germany,” said Frederik Storm, the active Danish World Championship leader in games played (78). “The Germans have had a tough schedule until now, so maybe we can build on this momentum. Winning is a good habit to get into. Let’s hope this can be the start of something big.”