Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Joyous Celebration

There are times in hockey when over-the-top celebrations fit the moment. When Belarus defeated Sweden at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. When the Americans beat the Soviets at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. When Hungary beat Belarus for their first World Hockey Championship victory in 77 years at the 2016 IIHF World Championship. All of these victories were momentous occasions for those hockey programs when the odds were so heavily stacked against them that no one would give them a chance of surviving, let alone winning. We can add one more story to those moments as Denmark, for the first time in its program's history, took on the reigning World Junior Champions in Finland and came away with the most unlikeliest of victories.

Granted, this is not the Finnish squad that outscored every other team on their way to a gold medal last season, but there was still enough talent on paper to make the Danes a rather simple foe. Denmark, to their credit, always seem to find some magic at these tournaments, and this victory over Finland almost assures them of a quarterfinal berth and a return engagement next year in Buffalo. While no one will anoint Denmark as a hockey superpower just yet, their record at the last two World Junior Championships is enough for them to be credited as one of the top-eight countries in the world right now. For a country with just over 2500 junior-aged players, we might be seeing a changing of the guard.

In 2015 tournament in Canada, the Danes took the Russians to a shootout in their opening game with Russia finally downing the plucky Danes in the skills competition for a 3-2 win. Sweden out-everythinged the Danes in a 5-1 victory before Denmark took the Czech Republic to extra time in their game. An overtime goal by the Czechs prevented the Danes from their first win, but they had taken points off both Russia and the Czech Republic in their first three games - something they had never done before.

In a game where the Danes never led and used two power-play goals to make the score 2-2 and 3-3, the Danes withstood a 45-shot barrage - credit to netminder Georg Sorensen - to force a shootout against a Swiss team many thought should have been better with the likes of Timo Meier, Mirco Muller, and Kevin Fiala on the roster. In was in the skills competition where the talent of the Danes' best shooters came to light as Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand scored on the Danes' first two shots while the Swiss only saw Timo Meier score.

It should be noted that Kevin Fiala was denied by Sorensen in the shootout. The 4-3 win was, to date, the biggest win in the Danish squad's history as it virtually guaranteed their inclusion in the 2016 World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland. Lo and behold, the Swedes dispatched the Swiss to send them to relegation, and Denmark, having already recorded their biggest win on the international stage, went to the quarterfinals where they were summarily dismantled by Canada to the tune of 8-0. Game, set, tournament.

The 2016 tournament saw the Danes upset the Swiss again, albeit in their first game of the tournament this time. Switzerland jumped out to an early lead off a Noah Rod goal midway through the first period, but the Danes rallied in the third period with goals 5:03 apart as Soeren Nielsen got the scoring started and Mathias From added the second goal. Thomas Lillie once again withstood a furious finish to end the game with 22 saves on 23 shots, but the win against the Swiss would be the only win recorded by the Danes at the 2016 World Junior Championship. The win was enough, however, to get them back to the quarterfinals which automatically qualified them for a trip to Toronto and Montreal for the 2017 World Junior Championship!

The quarterfinal was almost the Danes biggest win ever. Leading 3-2 over Russia late in the third period, the Danes saw Vladislav Kamenev score with the goaltender on the bench with 44 seconds remaining to push the quarterfinal game to overtime. And it would be Kamenev who broke the hearts of the Danes in the extra frame.

Gee, could those announcers be any more excited than they are for that overtime goal? You'd think they were emceeing a funeral with that kind of passion for the game. Wow.

Before we look at this year's major win by the Danes, let's review: two losses to the Russians where the Danes took them to extra time and beyond, a loss to the Czech Republic in overtime, and their only two victories at this event came over the Swiss. One can make the argument that the Czech Republic has fallen from its powerhouse status that it once was to become an also-ran, and the Swiss seem to have stagnated with only a handful of players that have even impressed scouts in the last few years. Russia, however, is still considered a perennial powerhouse, and the Danes have scared them twice in two years. It might be time to start giving Denmark a lot more credit for their development program, especially with players such as Fredrik Andersen, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Oliver Bjorkstrand leading the way as trailblazers for that country's improvement on the international stage.

Starting Finnish netminder Veini Vehvilainen allowed two goals on three first-period shots, and was replaced by backup Karolus Kaarlehto to start the second period. The Finns, however, never really put much pressure on Denmark's defence or netminder, and shots fired at Kasper Krog were easily turned aside. While the third period was better for the Finns, they dug themselves a 3-0 hole from which they simply could not recover.

"We always should beat Denmark, or at least score more goals than two goals with those shots," Finnish captain Olli Juolevi told reporters. "I don’t know. There are no excuses."

Highlights of the game are below. For the Finns, they are in serious danger of being placed in the relegation round after this loss.

For the Danes, this is as big an upset in World Junior Championship history as the Swiss knocking off the Swedes 2-1 in the quarterfinal and the Czechs 4-3 in the bronze-medal game in 1998, Belarus shocking the Americans by a 5-3 score in 2005, or Switzerland upsetting the Russian in the quarterfinal in 2010. However, as shown above, the Danes are an upward trend when it comes to their junior program, and they've slowly been edging their way towards being one of the better countries for the last three years. No one is going to put them in the top-four just yet, but they have closed the gap on teams like Finland and Russia when it comes to their play.

Congratulations, Denmark, on a huge victory for your program. The work and efforts going into your junior programs at home are paying off with each victory along the way, and today's win over last year's champions should be vindication that your programs are bearing fruit.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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